A painful history is suppressed, until a humble schoolhouse provides a means of sharing a story of mercy. William and Mary’s Professor Terry Meyers details his search for the structure that housed the first Bray School, and his hopes for finding proof at the College of “a bright spot in an otherwise dark narrative.”
Harmony Hunter: Hey, welcome to the podcast. I’m Harmony Hunter. Today we’re bringing you a story of memory and forgetting; a little piece of history that tells the story of a past that a town would rather not remember. The story begins with Williamsburg’s Bray School, which was Virginia’s first school for the education of black children.
My guest today is Terry Meyers, who is a professor of English at the College of William and Mary. Professor Meyers, thank you for being here today.
Terry Meyers: My pleasure.
Harmony: How did you find yourself researching the history of race relations in colonial and antebellum Virginia?
Terry: Well it’s a long story, but when my wife and I moved here in 1970, one of the first things I noticed was that the 19th century Williamsburg didn’t exist any longer.
I am a Victorianist. I studied Victorian literature and I’m, of course, interested in the 19th century. It just fascinated me to be in a town where you have several centuries represented: the 18th century, even the 17th century to some extent and at that time the 20th and now the 21st century, but the 19th century was largely forgotten. Being in Williamsburg, it’s hard not to be interested in Williamsburg history, but I became interested in Williamsburg history from about 1800 to 1950 which is not much studied. And I began to collect and read materials having to do with that history.
One of the books that I collected was by a man named Ed Belvin who grew up here in Williamsburg in the '20s and '30s and who’s published several memoirs of what Williamsburg was like before the Restoration came in and then as the Restoration took over. And they're wonderful sort of nostalgic looks at a small town. In one of those books, I came across a reference to a building, a structure, an 18th century structure, the Dudley Digges House that had been built apparently where Brown Hall is today which is just on Merchant’s Square just off the main campus. And he said that in 1930 it had been moved on to campus. That mystified me considerably because I had never heard that.
I finally wandered around the campus although, Ed Belvin had said, it had been moved to Prince George Street. I looked on Prince George Street. I couldn’t find it. I wandered around campus thinking maybe it had been moved someplace else; finally decided virtually that it had been torn down. Went back one more time to Rockefeller Library and the librarian there actually had a file in which he had some newspaper clippings on the house, on the structure and on its moving and on its purported history and some photographs. So I was able to use those and find the house at 524 Prince George Street where it still is today.
I decided to write a little history for the Virginia Gazette, the local newspaper, about this house. Because I thought it was intriguing that in this town where there are 88 original 18th-century structures and where there’s got to be more historians of colonial American history and architecture per square foot than any place else in America, I thought that it was interesting that this structure had been forgotten and it had been largely forgotten, not entirely forgotten. Ed Chappell, who’s in charge of archeological and architectural research at Colonial Williamsburg, when I came to him said he then remembered that he’d been told that that was an 18th-century structure so it wasn’t entirely forgotten.
But anyway, I got interested in the history of the house. I began to work in the Rockefeller Library and go through some of the title records, land records and so on, trying to find out who owned it when and so on. While I was working there, one of the historians in the research section knew that I was working on the Dudley Digges House and she mentioned to me just sort of in passing that there was some connection possibly with a black school and I thought, “Well that’s very intriguing.”
Harmony: So that was your first acquaintance with the Bray School?
Terry: With the Bray School, exactly. I had been interested in this house simply known as the Dudley Digges House, which is a kind of nondescript cottage of little historic value, although the association had been made with the name Dudley Digges to the Yorktown Dudley Digges, Colonel Dudley Digges, who was a Revolutionary patriot. But I discovered that there were in fact in that era roughly 7 Dudley Digges in Virginia and Maryland. Trying to pin down which was the Dudley Digges that was associated with the Dudley Digges House was rather difficult and it’s still rather challenging. There’s no certainty yet on that to be frank.
So I got interested in the Bray School, and it turned out in fact that the Bray School as a school is fairly well documented. It was established in 1760 by the associates of Dr. Bray, which was philanthropy in London where Benjamin Franklin was invited to be on their Board of Trustees, in effect, on the Board of the Associates. He was asked by the associates of Dr. Bray who were interested in the Christian education of blacks and Indians, heathens in the colonies. Benjamin Franklin was asked by them where they should locate three Bray schools.
I began to look into this and reading the correspondence of the associates of Dr. Bray I discovered that the College actually had sent two if its enslaved children, Adam and Fanny, to the Bray School although it had a location other than the location where I think the Dudley Digges house was with the school, and I got interested in that then.
So even as I was developing my researches in the history of the Bray School per se I also got interested in the connection to the College with slavery. These are slightly different things although they overlap to some extent. And what I realized was that until that moment in some ways I’d known in a kind of abstract way that the College must have been involved with slavery because we are an old southern school, the oldest southern university in the country, second in age in the whole country only to Harvard.
But when I came across the names of these two children, Adam and Fanny, it gave me a kind of face to slavery and I realized that I was working in an institution that actually did own human beings, did work human beings, even owned children and I realized that that’s something that I didn’t know much about and that in fact it was not much talked about at William & Mary. Apparently slavery is no longer part of our brand, although it was at one time.
We were, in antebellum years, probably one of the leading institutions generating the pro-slavery theories justifying slavery with our President, Thomas Roderick Dew and his faculty. So we have a long and not very happy association with slavery, not just having owned slaves right from the beginning, right from roughly from 1693. I think the first slaves were owned by the College and worked by the College and so on.
We owned a tobacco plantation from about 1717 right up to the edge of the 19th century where we, about 2,000 acres that we worked with 17 slaves to grow tobacco to support scholarships for white middle class boys. And that’s not mentioned in any of our college histories or anything like that. So I realized that there were a series of things having to do with slavery both the ownership of slaves and the Nottoway plantation which was the tobacco plantation and even Thomas Roderick Dew's pro-slavery writing and thinking and so on that really weren’t taken much notice of and it really should be.
Harmony: So the connection between these two stories is that there is some indication that the Bray School was located in the Dudley Digges House…
Terry: …that’s right.
Harmony:…which you feel that you may have located the fabric of it. It’s a building that has been modified, renovated and added to over the years, but there are some indications that the fabric of the building does show some hallmarks of 18th century construction.
So if we have, there, a connection between the original structure that may have housed the Bray School and its connection to William & Mary you’ve called that a bright spot in what is an otherwise complicated and painful history.
Terry: Well it’s interesting. There are a number of things that are going on. This is a national movement for universities to take a look at their own involvement with slavery. There’s a man, Al Brophy at the University of North Carolina law school who’s been sort of the force behind this.
So it’s happening on a kind of national level. I’m working very much at a local level. My work I think is slightly complicated because my assumption has always been that the full history of William & Mary, vis-à-vis slavery, was a very bad and very shameful history and I think certainly everything in the post reconstruction; Jim Crow era, massive resistance, I think we’ve committed many, many sins. There’s no question about that. And Thomas Roderick Dew and his antebellum faculty are appalling in their enthusiasm for slavery is the very basis of civilization in southern culture and something benign and good for all involved. It’s just not true.
But what I found are things like the Bray School which again forgotten; not documented its association with the College. I’ve just finished a long article in which I actually go back and I take a look at William & Mary in the 18th century and I’d always assumed that Thomas Roderick Dew and his faculty represented kind of 18th century attitudes at William & Mary towards slavery; that there was kind of a continuity of pro slavery thought at William & Mary.
In fact, what I found was not just people like George Wythe and St. George Tucker who had been known to express antipathy to slavery, but what I think is a kind of pervasive atmosphere at William & Mary among the students, among the faculty, even among members of the Board of Visitors that was very skeptical of slavery. I think in some ways I call us a hotbed of unease about slavery. These intellectual unease didn’t lead in most instances to emancipation of slaves or any serious challenge to slavery, but it caused a lot of skepticism about slavery.
Harmony: It’s a story that’s ongoing. You are only one of many people who are working to uncover this story to bring this history, to dredge it back up and it’s a story that’s also being told through archaeology. So coming up, we’re going to be talking with one of the archeologists on this project who is excavating and exploring the site of the Dudley Digges House to try to find evidence that the Bray School was in fact sited there.
Professor Meyers, thank you for being our guest today.
Terry: Thank you very much. It’s been a pleasure.