A historic headmistress devotes her days to educating enslaved children. Interpreter Antoinette Brennan shares the biography of Ann Wager.
Lloyd Dobyns: Hi. Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on history.org. This is “Behind the Scenes” where you meet the people who work here. That’s my job. I’m Lloyd Dobyns and mostly I ask questions. The Bray School for Negro Children opened in 1760 under the direction of Ann Wager. Antoinette Brennan is an interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg who portrays this historic headmistress.
The Bray school was affiliated with what?
Antoinette Brennan: The Bray School was the brainchild, to use a modern term, of the Reverend Dr. Thomas Bray, who lived in England and had this vision for the New World wherein he wanted the Negro children to learn to read so that they would be acquainted with the Bible and the catechism of the Church of England. So in other words, Dr. Bray, in his mind, set out to save their souls. To that purpose, he wanted schools, libraries, catechism books – he had a great vision. Well, it didn’t all come into play, but he fortuitously became acquainted with a member of the court of Queen Mary. Now this is very early in the 18th century, around beginning 1700s, to be exact.
He met this man who was quite impressed with Dr. Bray's zealousness, and he bequeathed to him £900, quite a fortune in that time period. So Dr. Bray now had the wherewithal to put his dream into motion, so to speak, and he formed what he called his associates – a group of gentlemen who would carry out these plans.
So, very gradually, the movement starts here in the New World. The first Bray School was opened in 1758 in Philadelphia. Well, there was a gentleman there in Philadelphia who was very much in favor of this, had observed the Negro children at their lessons and was quite pleased with their progress. He writes a letter down here to Williamsburg encouraging these gentlemen to start a like school. So hence the school opened here in Williamsburg. The gentleman who I am talking about is none other than Benjamin Franklin, who was quite a proponent.
In fact, he gives a wonderful quote that I always use in my interpretations. He says that – because there was some hesitation that maybe the money wouldn't be well-used because it was questionable what these children were going to be able to learn – Franklin settles that he, "observed the negro child, and found their apprehension to be as quick, their memory to be as strong, and their docility to be every bit equal to that of the white child." So that's a wonderful quote to be able to use from that exact time period.
Lloyd: Was that the first school in Williamsburg for negro children?
Antoinette: Yes, and to my knowledge, the only one. It opened Michaelmas day, the 21st of September, 1760, as you said. It continued until toward the end of 1774, when Mrs. Wager dies. By that time of course, political events are such that the gentlemen have other things on their minds and they do not attempt to find another schoolmistress. So the movement dies here in the capital city.
Lloyd: Was Anne Wager a schoolteacher before she became head of Bray School?
Antoinette: Yes, she was. We don't know a great deal about her personally, but we do know she was widowed in the early 1750s, and then from peripheral records, it seems that she schooled white children at home – kind of a day school, you would call it. She earns a little money this way. So she probably did it to make ends meet, cause she still has her daughter, Mary, at home with her who was not yet reached her age of majority. Her son, William, has, because he helps settle what little estate there was when her husband dies.
Lloyd: How was the Bray School received, if that's the correct word, in Williamsburg?
Antoinette: We only can answer that indirectly, in that people from the very highest levels of society were sending their slave children to the school. People like Peyton Randolph, the speaker of the House of Burgesses, his brother John Randolph, the attorney general. I mentioned Robert Carter Nicholas, who of course is the treasurer of the colony at this time. Robert Carter, grandson to Robert King Carter – these men all have children in the school, slave children, as well as the lesser sort. But we can always figure that if the people of the gentry level were using the school, then they must have certainly been in agreement with the purposes of it.
Lloyd: Do we know how many children were at the school at a time?
Antoinette: Not that formally, but Robert Carter Nicholas wrote a lot of letters over to England and letters came over here also, but both ways, but probably because there was so much money involved. So Nicholas gives an account over to England of what's been done with the money. There are three lists from different years of the children attending: their names, their ages, and their masters or mistresses who own them, or their families if they happen to be free Negro children, which there weren't very many. Anyway, those three lists are wonderful. The highest total was 34 students. We know that the day the school started, there were 24. So they opened the school with that number. So it increased a little, but not a great many. Because you must consider, there would be several hundred Negro children living in Williamsburg at that time. So there's a great many who don't attend.
Lloyd: So it's nowhere near the number of potential students.
Antoinette: The other thing is that the children don’t attend for a very long period of time. Some of them come for a year, maybe two years, maybe three. It all depends on the whim of the owners of these slave children or their parents, also. Because when a child reaches a certain size and understanding where you'd probably like to have them in the school, well you can put them to useful pursuits at home and they don't any longer attend, whether they be slave children or free children. The other thing Mrs. Wager also taught the girls stitchery, And of course, that would be very helpful in a household.
Lloyd: You don't think of that, but that's not an innate ability, that's something you have to learn.
Antoinette: That's right. And she specifies teaching them so many stitches to the inch, she teaches them to knit, and she teaches them to mark the linens. In other words, putting the initials, monograms, as we would call them today.
Lloyd: Was there any other form of education for Negro children that you know of?
Antoinette: None that I know of, no. People often ask though, wasn't it illegal? Visitors ask me that in character, "Isn't what you're doing illegal?" And no, there was no restriction on that in Virginia. There were in one of the other colonies, but not in Virginia.
Lloyd: Did Mrs. Wager leave a diary or a journal or a something that tells about her teaching?
Antointte: Oh, I wish she had. No. I do have a list of the books that were sent to her from England, and I know she received slates and slate pencils. I also know that the college sent over firewood, the College of William and Mary. We also know, which is a wonderful piece of information, we know where the school was. It's been moved from its original position but it's only been moved across the street and down a lot. Antoinette: Now they did allow her to live in the house that was used for the school.
Lloyd: How generous.
Antoinette: Yes and she's paid not a great bit of money, something like about £20, £25 a year. It varies. Mr. Nicholas gets an increase in her salary for her after a time. But it's not a great sum of money, but of course she doesn't have too many expenses, either.
Lloyd: The other thing is, she doesn't have that many opportunities, in those days, to either earn money, or to spend it.
Antoinette: And the money, she doesn't get the actual cash, because this is such a strong credit society. So they give her the payment as credit on Mr. Tarpley's books and there's a wonderful line in Mr. Tarpley's record book where Mrs., he sells stays to Mrs. Wager, for I think it's £2, which would be about, what would that be, about 10 percent of her annual salary, if she makes £20 a year. So she would go in, then, and buy things against the credit.
Lloyd: Also she can only buy at one store, which is sort of limited.
Antoinette: Yes, unless she buys ready money. If she can buy ready money from Mr. Tarpley against her credit, then she can use that somewhere else. So it gives the interpreter also a chance to ask about the economic situation of the times.
Lloyd: Well the economic situation at her time is limited at best if she makes £20 a year.
Antoinette: She's a wonderful character, in that she's such a bridge between the black community and the white community. I can't think of another character that fits that bill quite as easily. She certainly had relationships both ways, of course. You can also use her to talk about widowhood, and economics as I just mentioned. She can even touch on government a little bit because as a widow, she certainly must be aware of what's going on. She must be concerned because that money's coming from England, and if political events heat up too much, why, that money will be no longer forthcoming. Her job is at stake. So she has a vested interest.