The Associates of Dr. Bray, a philanthropic Anglican organization, established the Williamsburg Bray School to educate free and enslaved African American children between 1760 and 1774. The school’s complicated legacy is one that Oral Historian Tonia Merideth investigates in the College of William and Mary Bray School Lab.
“The purpose of the school was to educate the enslaved and indigenous in the teachings of the Church of England,” Merideth said. “But the other purpose of the school was to indoctrinate into the enslaved children that their life was meant to be a life of slavery, and that hopefully the school would help them to accept that station and not rebel against the practice of slavery.”
Working with the College’s Bray School Lab, Merideth talks to descendants of original Bray attendees to track the students’ histories. She first learned about the Bray School on a trip to Williamsburg. Her discovery of the school led her to challenge notions she had previously learned regarding the education of enslaved people.
“I was taught that slaves were not taught to read and write, they were illiterate,” Merideth said. “I have a picture of it that I took 10 years ago of the school and posted it on Facebook like, ‘I found the Bray!’ because what that school represented to me was a complete reversal of everything that I had been taught about my ancestors.”
Merideth’s research holds a personal connection to the Bray School; her fourth great grandfather was Peter Armistead, who sent one of his enslaved children, Locust, to study at the Bray School in 1762. Finding this link to the research material strengthened her resolve to study the history of the Bray School.
“Even before I knew that I was descended, descended from the families, I still felt a part of the descendant community — I felt like my ancestors were in that building,” Merideth said. “Getting the affirmation that I was a descendant community because I was descended from the line of those families made me want to participate even more, not just for myself, but also to encourage other descended community members to take advantage of participating in the project, and getting a chance to honor our ancestors.”
As Oral Historian, Merideth often finds it difficult to follow the stories of enslaved people, as they were not usually in records by a traceable name prior to 1870.
“The challenge for the Bray students is that it’s just a first name,” Merideth said. “Many times when slaves were sold to other enslavers, that newest owner would change their name, so it’s a possibility that some of these slaves, if they were sold, they may not have the same name they had on that school list.”
Despite these difficulties with tracking relatives, Merideth describes her overall experience with the Bray School as positive and rewarding.
“There is still work to be done, because some descendants are hesitant to engage in a project that reminds them that their ancestors were slaves,” Merideth said. “That’s where we have to approach them with the thought that this isn’t really about trying to remind you of a painful event, but hopefully that you’ll engage in a project that can honor your ancestors.”
Outside of her work at the Bray School, Merideth is an avid traveler, visiting locations around the United States and Italy. She plans to tour Africa soon to visit important landmarks in the history of the slave trade.
“I’m hoping to go to Ghana — that is where the largest slave trading castle was, the Elmina Castle,” Merideth said. “I know it will probably be a very emotional trip. I’m hoping to go to Ghana, Nigeria, the Congo — that is the area where the majority of slaves were brought from.”
Merideth hopes that her work illuminates the history and experiences of the Bray School scholars for future generations.
“We want people to understand what those scholars’ lives were like,” Merideth said. “As they sat in that school room and looked out the rear window, they saw the Wren building in the back. Just think about the fact that there’s no way they could have known that one day that building that was restricted to them would include their descendants.… you may have noticed in my email signature it says, ‘I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams.’ Because they could have never imagined in their wildest dreams that their descendants would be attending William and Mary and doing some of the wonderful things that their descendants are doing. So that’s the takeaway I want people to have about this story.”
CORRECTION (3/16/23): Article was updated by the Standards and Practice Editor, Sarah Devendorf, to change the name of Merideth’s fourth great grandfather from Ellison to Peter as that information was misreported upon initial publication.