Historic College building rediscovered

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January 28, 2011

12:06 AM

A recent discovery at the College of William and Mary may have increased its already rich historical legacy.
English professor Terry Meyers discovered a structure that he believes housed the Bray School, a school that taught religious education to free and enslaved blacks from 1760 to 1774 under the Associates of Dr. Bray, an 18th-century London philanthropic organization.

The building, now located at 524 Prince George St., houses part of the College’s military science department.

The discovery of the structure stemmed from Meyers’s own interest and expertise in the Victorian Era. While reading 19th and 20th century writings, Meyers came across Ed Belvin’s “Williamsburg Facts Fiction: 1900-1950,” which mentioned the existence of an 18th-century house in a passage about the first Brown Hall’s move onto campus in 1930 to its current location at the corner of S. Boundary and Prince George Streets.

The work also claimed that the building was the home of Revolutionary War patriot Dudley Digges, who also owned a more prominent home in Yorktown, causing questions about the Williamsburg Digges house.
Meyers turned to Louise Kale, director of the historic campus at the College, and Chris Preacher, proprietor of Williamsburgpostcards.com, to identify the building.

Their combined efforts, however, did not provide answers.

“I just about gave up,” Meyers said. “I couldn’t find anything 18th century.”

The tides turned, however, when Meyers found a memoir from the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. library in Colonial Williamsburg and a 1930 article from The Flat Hat that both mentioned the moving of Brown Hall.

Through more extensive research throughout the area, including archives, newspapers, microfilms and aerial photographs, Meyers eventually located the building at its current location.

“Standing in front of the ROTC building, I suddenly realized that if you remove the appendices on the side and adjusted the roof it could be an 18th-century house,” Meyers said.

While absolute certainty of linking the proposed building with the Bray School cannot be claimed, Meyers said that the evidence linking the school and the house appears extremely plausible.

The Bray School taught as many as 30 free and enslaved black children and focused on conduct in church, namely in Bruton Parish Church.

The College owned two slaves, Adam and Fanny, who were educated at the Bray School.

“When I found out the College had children [at Bray School], it got me very interested,” Meyers said. “It gave slavery a face.”

The College, along with most southern schools, has a history with slavery, including a tobacco plantation it owned for nearly 70 years in the 18th century. Money gained from the plantation was used for scholarships.

Ultimately, the discovery of the structure and its historical implications could provide an opportunity for historical reflection. Meyers is currently scheduled to speak at Emory University in February at a conference entitled: “Slavery and the University: Histories and Legacies.”

“[The discovery] will make people stop and take a look at our history with slavery and ask how we forgot about this major component,” Meyers said. “Those at Bray School became the first black teachers in Virginia. Education is education, and it is good, so we can take some pride in the discovery.”

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