A building believed to be the oldest surviving schoolhouse for colored children in the US was hoisted onto a flatbed truck and moved a half-mile Friday to Colonial Williamsburg, a Virginia museum that continues to expand its emphasis on African American history.
Built 25 years before the American Revolution, the original structure stood near the college campus of William & Mary.
The pinewood building held as many as 30 students at a time, some of them free Black children studying alongside the enslaved.
Hundreds of people lined the streets to celebrate its slow-speed trip into the heart of the living history museum, which tells the story of Virginia’s colonial capital through interpreters and restored buildings.
Williamsburg is less than 10 miles from Jamestown, which England established in 1607.
The Bray School was established in 1760 at the recommendation of Benjamin Franklin, chairman of a London-based Anglican charity named after philanthropist Reverend Thomas Bray. The charity also set up schools in other cities, including New York and Philadelphia.
The curriculum ranged from spellers to the Book of Common Prayer. But even within the schools’ paternalistic framework, the education could still be empowering, perhaps even subversive.
The Williamsburg Bray School operated until 1774; only Philadelphia’s reopened after the Revolutionary War. The structure became a private home for many years before it was incorporated into William & Mary’s campus.
Historians believed they had identified the original Bray School building, but it wasn’t confirmed until 2021, through the use of dendrochronology, a scientific method that examines tree rings in lumber to determine the wood’s harvest date.
“This is a remarkable story of survival,” said Matthew Webster, Colonial Williamsburg’s executive director of architectural preservation and research. “And for us, it’s so important to put it back (to its original state) and tell the full and true story.”