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Nestled in communities across the country are storied landmarks that provide a lens into Black history. Amongst these pillars is the Bray School—the nation’s oldest standing schoolhouse for African American children—which recently received a $5 million preservation grant.

Founded in 1760, the school—located in Williamsburg—served as a learning institution for free and enslaved Black youth. Under the tutelage of educator Ann Wager, over 400 children learned the fundamentals of reading, writing and religion. Although the school equipped students with literacy skills, its curriculum incorporated problematic doctrines by “directing the enslaved to accept their circumstances as divinely ordained,” the College of William & Mary shared.

The Bray School shuttered following the death of Wager in 1774. William & Mary acquired the school in 1930, providing a hub for its military science department.

As decades passed, the structure’s history faded into obscurity. In 2003, retired English professor Terry Meyers unearthed the structure’s forgotten legacy and brought attention to its existence. It took 20 years for researchers to confirm the 260-year-old building on William & Mary’s campus was indeed the Bray School. Last year the college sold the structure to the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, the country’s largest outdoor living museum.

The $5 million endowment—provided by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation—will support the revitalization of the structure and the development of programs to educate the masses about its significant history.

“The Williamsburg Bray School Project monumentalizes significant small acts of liberation in our country’s history—those of enslaved and free Black children learning to read and write at a time and in a place where formal schooling was rare and Black potential was suppressed,” Mellon Foundation President Elizabeth Alexander shared in a statement. “By restoring the Bray School, we restore our knowledge of the vital stories of the Bray School children, of the families and friends to whom the children brought their learning, and of the capacious power of education. We are honored to support this work with the Monuments Project, which aims to elevate and celebrate stories like these throughout the United States.”

The Bray School restoration project is slated to be completed by fall 2024. The endowment is part of the Mellon Foundation’s $250 million commitment to preserving and reimagining historic places throughout the United States.


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