By Nicole Trifone
Robert Carter Nicholas had long feared Ann Wager would be irreplaceable.
“How to supply the school better I don’t know,” he wrote in 1765 of the founding instructor at the Williamsburg Bray School, where Nicholas, a prominent Williamsburg resident, served as trustee.
His concern proved prophetic. The school that aimed to teach both free and enslaved black children to read the Bible and obey Christian principles shuttered upon Wager’s death in 1774 and never reopened.
Whether no one could quite fill her shoes or the public sentiment toward a school for African American children soured — or both — is unclear. But the decision to close the Williamsburg Bray School after Wager’s death sealed her place in history as the school’s only teacher over its 14 years in operation.
Nicole Brown’s portrayal of Wager explores the intersection of slavery, religion and education in 18th-century Colonial America. Brown debuted as the tutoress — the 18th-century term for a teacher — this spring as part of The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s Nation Builders, placing her alongside such Revolutionary figures as Gen. George Washington, enslaved preacher Gowan Pamphlet and Virginia Gazette printer Clementina Rind.
“Emotionally and spiritually, she is the most challenging person I’ve ever had to interpret,” said Brown, who has worked for the Foundation since 2014 and portrayed several 18th-century women, including Martha Jefferson. “She is working at a school that on the one hand believes all souls are equal but on the other hand does nothing to question the validity of slavery.”
Not much is known about Wager prior to her husband’s death around 1748, and much of what is known is centered on her life as a teacher. There is no record of her birthdate, maiden name or birthplace, and no personal writings have been discovered. She was likely born between 1707 and 1710 and might have grown up in Elizabeth City County in southeastern Virginia — where it is possible she attended a charity school that her son, William Wager Jr., later helped to fund.
She had a decade of teaching under her belt and was likely in her early 50s when she competed for and won the position at the Bray School. By then, she had taught students from a number of prominent white families in the Williamsburg area, including her first known job as a tutor for the children of Carter Burwell, a member of the House of Burgesses and the builder of Carter’s Grove.
Wager’s approach to teaching black children reflected the teachings of the Church of England. The Williamsburg Bray School that opened in 1760 was one of several charity schools in the Colonies funded by the Associates of Dr. Bray, a British charitable institution named for the Rev. Dr. Thomas Bray, a British clergyman who was deeply involved in the spread of religious education across the British Empire.
Bray School students were taught to read and spell, largely through lessons that incorporated the Anglican catechism, as well as basic arithmetic. Girls also learned to sew and knit. The school’s mistress bore the responsibility of her students’ religious upbringing: She brought them to services at Bruton Parish Church, imparted the Church of England’s doctrine and set societal expectations through lessons on etiquette and manners. The curriculum was promoted to slave owners as a way to help improve the value of their human property while saving the souls of those enslaved.
Wager’s work with the students seems to have pleased both Williamsburg slave owners and the Associates. Though students did not often remain in the school for the three-year requirement, enrollment totals held steady year after year; Wager likely taught more than 300 black children through her work at the Bray School. Nicholas and members of the Associates consistently approved of her performance, praising her devotion to “our gracious Master, whose Merciful Designs she so assiduously endeavors to promote.”
The position paid 25 pounds per year, an annual salary that could not match what she would have made per student if she had continued tutoring white pupils from wealthy families.
“I believe Ann sees herself as a missionary, that her role as a tutoress is her calling that God has created for her,” said Brown, who portrays Wager as confident and pragmatic about her school’s role in the community and supportive of the goal of educating the enslaved without questioning their bondage. “She had to have been fully aligned with the school mission in order to have run it so successfully.”
Wager is the latest in a string of 18th-century figures Brown has portrayed since she began working for Colonial Williamsburg four years ago. She started as a public sites interpreter, sharing with guests the stories behind the Historic Area buildings and the people who occupied them — a job she credits for instilling a deep passion for Williamsburg and its place in history.
On paper, Brown’s childhood in Arlington, Virginia, may not have seemed destined for a life performing at a living history museum. The daughter of a computer programmer and an accountant, Brown had her eye on a career in marine biology after attending the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. But her extracurricular activities — roaming museums with parents who shared a passion for history and taking classes at the Shakespeare Theater Company and Folger Shakespeare Library — took her on a different path.
She earned a degree in theater from the College of William & Mary but did not consider a job with the Foundation until she felt the pull back to Williamsburg six months after graduation. She has gradually moved through the various costumed positions, from sites interpreter to actor-interpreter to character-interpreter and now Nation Builder, allowing her to develop the interpretive and research skills she found invaluable as she prepared to portray Wager.
Brown developed her portrayal largely through documents found from the men, near and far, in Wager’s life, such as her husband, her son, the school trustees and the members of the Associates of Dr. Bray. Building on prior research from historians, Brown dug deeper into Bray School documents to piece together the curriculum Wager likely followed as evidenced in the books the Associates sent for her use. Brown also spent months researching the larger themes that came to define the latter part of Wager’s life — religion, education and slavery.
Brown’s next step is to search for more information about the students whose lives were inevitably changed by the education they took home to their brothers and sisters, and eventually sons and daughters. So far, Brown knows the names of 88 students and hopes to learn more to be able to share their stories.
“I see Ann Wager living, grappling, struggling and creating the contradictions that I know we all create in our own lives,” Brown said. “Some of her choices led to a positive outcome, some of her choices led to contradictory outcomes, but she made choices in her life because she saw her ministry, above all, being paramount to what she did.”
The addition of Ann Wager to Colonial Williamsburg’s Nation Builders program is generously funded by The Kern Family Foundation.
Nicole Brown debuted her portrayal of Ann Wager, the teacher at the Williamsburg Bray School, in the spring. (Tom Green/The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)
The Bray School was first operated in a building known as the Digges House, which stood on the site now occupied by a College of William & Mary dormitory. In 1930, the Digges House was moved down Prince George Street, where it now houses the college’s ROTC program.
Read more about the Bray School, from Trend & Tradition’s Winter 2016 issue.