Is history set in stone, like a statue, or is it fluid, more evolving process than petrified facts? At EV, we get to see history in motion, as with our entry on the Bray Schools. These schools were founded in Williamsburg and Fredericksburg, as well as in Philadelphia, New York, and Newport, Rhode Island, by the Associates of Dr. Bray, a London-based Anglican charitable organization that sought to Christianize enslaved Blacks in colonial America.
The Williamsburg Bray school has been in the news after the building that housed it was painstakingly moved from an obscure location on the campus of William & Mary, where for years its significance was overlooked, to a more prominent location in Colonial Williamsburg. The building, known as the Bray-Digges House, will be restored to look as it did when it educated Black children. The Bray School Lab will work to uncover the names of the students who attended the school and document and disseminate its history as part of an effort to center the Black legacy in the story of U.S. democracy.
The Bray schools stand as one of the few serious attempts to educate enslaved children in the colonial era. But historians have debated their impact. Our entry quotes John Van Horne, the editor of Religious Philanthropy and Colonial Slavery: The American Correspondence of the Associates of Dr. Bray, 1717–1777, who originally wrote that “the success of the Bray schools was limited.” He noted they enrolled only about 2,000 or 3,000 students, that most schools never reopened after they closed during the American Revolution, and the lone exception—the Philadelphia school—only lasted until the early nineteenth century.
But based on his recent research in the Bray Associates’ archives for the post-Revolution period, Van Horne contacted us to let us know that he had new information and insights on the schools. Firstly, he discovered that the Philadelphia school had remained open until the mid-nineteenth century and had been joined by a second school that was taught by Black men. And, based on his research with Grant Stanton to catalog all the known attendees of the Bray schools, he had revised his assessment of the total number of students, now putting it closer to 1,000 during the colonial period. But while Van Horne’s estimate of the total number of students decreased, his assessment of the overall significance of the schools had increased given the long life, greater attendance, and general success of the Philadelphia schools from 1786 to 1845.
The result is that our entry on the Associates of Dr. Bray and the Bray Schools has been updated to reflect this new understanding. Rather than concluding that the success of the schools was limited, Van Horne now asserts that their “success varied temporally and geographically,” with the Philadelphia schools enjoying “greater success owing to that city’s large free Black population.”
Van Horne notes that archival research, as well as archaeological and other modes of research, always has the potential to alter our understanding of the past, as long as we are open to revising our thinking and recognizing that history is always on the move.