Williamsburg’s first school for African-American children is led by a tireless schoolmistress. Interpreter Antoinette Brennan tells the life story of Anne Wager, a woman to be remembered.
Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast. I’m Harmony Hunter. Sometimes history chooses unlikely heroes. Today we’ll hear the story of Ann Wager, a woman who turned to teaching when her husband died, leaving her with two small children to support. This humble start was Ann Wager’s first step toward becoming the mistress of Williamsburg’s first school for black children.
Our guest today is Antoinette Brennan, who portrays Ann Wager here at Colonial Williamsburg. Thank you for being here today.
Antoinette Brennan: Well thank you for having me.
Harmony: Let’s talk about what we do know about Ann Wager. She’s married and she has a pretty normal life up until the point that her husband dies. What type of life does she have before she has to support herself?
Antoinette: We’re not sure what he did, but she does have these two children, at least two that survived is all we know. The daughter marries a carpenter, Matthew Hatton, because we have the deed where they purchased land on Capitol Landing Road and he builds a house, so that’s one part of her family. The other one is a son William named for his father, her husband, Anne’s husband, and William Wager actually becomes a Burgess for a time.
But I’ve looked into the records of the House of Burgesses, and he really doesn’t do anything that’s noteworthy, in fact, one time his election is even contested so it doesn’t sound like too shining a career. But it still indicates that they were maybe a little bit upward of the middling sort. But when she finds herself to be a widow, the husband dies without a will by the way, which complicates things, so she and William go to court to, well, to try to collect monies that are owed to them.
Antoinette: I don’t know that there was much property and we think she was forced to supplement whatever income she had, because she seems to take in some white children to teach, like a day school. That goes for a time and then she takes a position at Carter’s Grove.
Harmony: And Carter’s Grove, the Carter Family is very well respected, a very prominent upper class family.
Antoinette: Oh yes.
Harmony: Very politically famous family.
Antoinette: Yes and she’s the tutor for those four daughters of Carter Burwell. So that must have been a very good position and we do know she takes Mary along with her and they live there for 6 years at Carter’s Grove.
Harmony: Mary’s her daughter?
Antoinette: Mary’s the daughter, so she was still young at the time. The verification for this is Carter Burwell’s account book, which indicates several lines of such and such for Ann Wager for schooling my children.
Harmony: So this is a very good line for her to have on her resume, a very good reference for her to have?
Antoinette: Yes and it really works in her favor, because when the Bray School opens, lo and behold, who is the overseer but Robert Carter Nicholas who is half brother to Carter Burwell. So that certainly is a plus, because other people apply for the position at the Bray School also. And they wanted a school mistress because they wanted somebody to teach the girls stitchery so she had a bit of an advantage there. And then she certainly had an advantage in working for the brother-in-law of the man who was potentially going to hire her.
Harmony: So we’re at the point in her story where she becomes mistress of the Bray School, which is the first school in Williamsburg specifically for the teaching of African American children, both enslaved and free. I imagine this is the point in your narrative where people interrupt you and say, “Black children went to school, black children were educated?”
Antoinette: Well not only that but they say, “Isn’t it illegal?” And no it was not illegal in Virginia, obviously, or she wouldn’t have been doing it and with all the sanctions that were given to her. But there are some restrictions in other colonies, and it’s easy to point that out to people. But no law breaking on her part here. The point I try to get across when I’m interpreting the story is that they’re not getting a wonderful education. They’re getting some skills, they’re getting some, as she puts it, some learning. Because they’re not going to be with her for a very long period of time, maybe a year, maybe two, possibly three, but probably not much longer than that.
Harmony: What is she charged with teaching them, the boys and the girls?
Antoinette: She is charged with teaching, reading, writing, spelling, pronunciation of proper names and the “stops,” which I found was interesting because the “stops” turn out to be punctuation where one stops the voice for the comma, colon, period and so on. Then she also teaches the boys to cipher; girls of course would have no use for a skill such as ciphering. The girls instead learned stitchery, which of course all you ladies will realize is of much greater importance. But then all of the children are taught the catechism and that was the main thrust of this effort was to teach Christianity.
Harmony: And her day started very early and she had, was it a 7 day a week schedule?
Antoinette: Well, pretty much because the school is supposed to be open Monday through Saturday at 6:00 in the morning in the summer time, 7:00 in the winter hours. Well, that’s a pretty early start considering somebody has to start the fires and get the water boiling even before she can eat anything. She must have had to rise very early. The length of the school day is a little bit nebulous because it’s not really addressed clearly.
See, the letters come from England, along with the funding. The letters were saved, so that’s how we know a great deal about the Bray School. But then on Sunday she would have to take them to church unless they were attending with their families that owned them; most of them being slave children. So there’s a seven-day-a-week assignment, and the poor woman, I wonder how she had time to attend to her own needs, but apparently she worked it out somehow. Now the one advantage is that they do allow her to live in the house that’s used for the school.
Harmony: Because she earns relatively little compared to other teachers in Williamsburg. What was her salary?
Antoinette: Somewhere around £20 sterling a year.
Harmony: But that included her living in that house where she also conducted school?
Antoinette: But she gets the house to live in. And the house is rented from Dudley Diggs and then they take a larger one that’s owned by the Blair family.
Harmony: Was there resistance in Williamsburg to this school and to the mission of educating these children?
Antoinette: I don’t think so, or if it was, I don’t think it was voiced very loudly. Because the school was being used by such families as the Randolphs, both Peyton Randolph and his brother John and Robert Carter Nicholas, treasurer of the colony was the overseer for the endeavor and Robert Carter, the grandson to King Carter was sending slave children there. Well with men of that social level using the school it would be rather foolhardy for somebody of a lesser station to criticize their practice. So if you did disapprove, I would imagine you didn’t say too much about it.
Harmony: How long does the school stay open?
Antoinette: Until her death in 1774, so it’s a good 14 years.
Harmony: And it’s never re-established after?
Antoinette: No, and I think probably by that time toward the end of ‘74 the political scene is so engrossing and so all-encompassing, I would imagine that that was not considered a priority any longer.
Harmony: Because we know a revolution comes in just 2 years.
Antoinette: Yes, we know but they didn’t.
Harmony: I wonder if you’ve found in your research or if you have any sense through your own portrayal and research of this character, do you think that Ann Wager had a sense of the impact she was having in this community? I remember we’ve had another guest on this show, our historian Harvey Bakari, and he talks about how powerful literacy becomes to the African American community; how empowering and how powerful the written word is in so many ways. Do you think that Ann Wager has a sense of what she’s giving these children?
Antoinette: I hope she did. Of course I have no way of really knowing, but there’s some objection voiced. Some people on one side of the coin say it’s a foolish waste of money because those Negro children can’t learn. Well she certainly would disagree with that because she would see her charges making progress on a daily basis. On the other side of the coin, there are those that say, “Oh, if you’re going to teach those children reading and writing that’s going to be dangerous. They’re all going to raise and revolt.” And of course those two objections contradict each other so they can’t both be true anyway.
She realizes, I would imagine realizes, that it’s a controversial practice to some extent and yet the main thrust of it is to promote Christianity among the African population here in Virginia, and surely she must have realized the importance of that. Because at this time there is a small volume written by a minister in Maryland, the Reverend Mr. Thomas Bacon, and he writes sermons addressing masters and servants, servants and masters. He doesn’t use the term slaves, but it’s implied, and he makes it very clear that to people who have others in their charge who have been placed under their care in this world, yes, they have an obvious obligation for food and clothing and shelter to be provided for them.
But he makes the case repeatedly that this master has a much more important moral obligation to care for the spiritual well being of these people in his charge or her charge as the case may be. And it is an obligation that is one day to be answered to the Almighty and it’s an obligation not to be taken lightly and to be addressed in the most serious manner. But one wonders how many people really understood the importance of such an obligation.
Harmony: What do you enjoy most about portraying this character for our visitors here at Colonial Williamsburg?
Antoinette: Well I like portraying her first of all because I don’t think the woman of this time period get a great deal of attention, because most of the credit of course goes to our founding fathers kind of roles, and they did certainly lead the whole show. There’s no doubt about that, but surely women played an important role too. I believe her work was of great importance to her, otherwise why didn’t she go to live with Mary, her daughter out on Capitol Landing Road, and sit by the fireside? I mean you would think that for an older woman that would have been quite acceptable, but she continues this rather difficult schedule for 14 years.
And even in one year, she has some kind of an illness and she’s not able to continue her work. Well, Mr. Nicholas, he’s talking about finding a new schoolmistress, but she does recover and resumes her duties. So, I mean, even that didn’t deter her. She comes back with full force. So it must have been somewhat of a passion for her I would think. Now, I say in character and maybe I’m taking a liberty to say this, because I don’t know, but I say that in a small sense I feel I’m doing God’s work. Because I kind of have a feeling that that must be what she thought, because she is teaching the catechism and the lessons of scripture to these children. Dr. Bray feels, the person of course founding this movement, Dr. Bray feels that the African American population would have come from as he called it, “the dark continent,” and he was concerned of their lack of understanding of Christianity. So to him it was a driving force to do this and he devoted most of his life to this effort. So I think she’s carrying on what was must have been a passion for Dr. Bray.
Harmony: It’s a wonderful individual to bring to life here in Williamsburg and I hope that all of our guests get a chance to see you portray this character here in the Revolutionary City. Antoinette, thank you so much for being our guest today.
Antoinette: Well thank you very much.