(Aug. 18, 2012) The details of life at the oldest known site of organized education for African American students are being unearthed by researchers scouring a 17th century foundation near the grounds of the College of William & Mary in historic Williamsburg this summer.
The researchers are digging near the intersection of Prince George and Boundary Streets in Williamsburg, where Benjamin Franklin, one of the architects of the Declaration of Independence, called for the establishment of a religious school for Black free and slave children.
According to William & Mary’s Terry L. Meyers, an English scholar, that point is where the Bray School was launched and operated from about 1760 to 1765 in what was known as the Dudley Digges House.
So far, Meyers has pinpointed the original location of the house and has been able to document that it was the site of a school before it was used as the residence of a 17th century Williamsburg man named Dudley Digges. That man was the uncle of a man of the same name in nearby Yorktown, Va. who helped forge the U.S. Constitution.
“Before moving into it, Dudley Digges appears to have rented it between 1763 and 1765 to an English philanthropy, the Associates of Dr. Bray. At Benjamin Franklin's suggestion, the Associates had located in Williamsburg one of their schools to Christianize Black children,” according to Meyers in a 2004 article in the Virginia Gazette.
The school was later moved to another location in Williamsburg, where it functioned until 1774, according to Meyers.
Efforts to find Bray School artifacts are part of a project at William & Mary to document the pro-slavery and abolition history of the school which is located in an area that was on the cusp of Confederate and Union occupation during the Civil War.
“William and Mary appears to be the first college or university in America to concern itself as an institution…with the education of Blacks, free and enslaved,” Meyers wrote in the December 2010 issue of the peer-reviewed journal Anglican & Episcopal History, according to the Virginia Gazette.