Black Literacy in Colonial America: The Impact of the Bray Schools

(Above) A photograph of the unveiling of the Bray School Marker.
When Americans generally think about colonial education, we often imagine men like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison pouring over books in their personal libraries. Hardly ever do we reflect on how literacy and education came into contact with those who American society did not consider “elite.” Indeed, I often get looks of confusion or bewilderment when I tell people that I study the history of Black literacy in Colonial Virginia. As a country, we don’t always consider how education varied amongst different groups of people or why this was the case. Throughout history, education has been used to encourage, as well as limit, individuals based on societal perception of their merit. All of these ideas converge in profound and relevant ways when we study the Bray Associates, their international schools, and the ramifications these schools had, and have, on Black literacy. (1) Founded in 1723, the Bray Associates were the first charity of its kind within the Church of England. Started by Anglican minister and theologian Rev. Dr. Thomas Bray, the schools were intended to provide religious instruction and general education to Black children across North America. Although these schools did provide basic literacy, let us not confuse education with encouragement of expression or agency. According to the Secretary of the Associates in the mid-eighteenth century, their North American Schools were designed to “have a very good effect upon [slaves] morals & make them faithful & honest in their Masters [sic] Service.” (2) In spite of this, we do see numerous examples of students making meaning of their education in a way that opposed the Church of England’s expectations. From the Caribbean to Nova Scotia, there are countless instances of students (and the Black communities they were part of) using their education to change the world around them. It is imperative that we study these histories when discussing American education. Such stories remind us to search for agentive Black experiences amongst, and hidden within, historic narratives of oppression. My work has taken me across continents and oceans in search of the real story behind Black education in Colonial America. The resistance and agency of these students due to, and in spite of, their education has led me to understand American history in a profoundly different way than what I was taught in school. I hope you join us to learn more about this, as well as the complex relationship between slavery, Christianity, and education that still haunts The American experience by attending my Saturday, February 27, 2021 digital lecture, “So Pious an Undertaking: Slavery, Religion, Education, and Virginia’s Bray Schools.”
(Above) Portrait of Dr. Thomas Bray.
(Above) Photograph of a Bray School Excavation.
(Above) Bookplate. The Society for Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG) was a philanthropic organization developed by Dr. Thomas Bray.
(1) Van Horne, John C. and Associates of Dr. Bray (Organization). Religious Philanthropy and Colonial Slavery: The American Correspondence of the Associates of Dr. Bray, 1717-1777. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986. (2) “Rev. John Waring to Benjamin Franklin, 24 January 1757.” In Religious Philanthropy and Colonial Slavery: The American Correspondence of the Associates of Dr. Bray, 1717-1777, 121–23. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985.

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Nicole Brown is a researcher, performer, and interpreter of women in Virginia spanning from 1750 to 1800. Mrs. Brown graduated from the College of William & Mary in 2013. Over the past three years, the topics of religion, education, and slavery in Colonial Virginia have been the focus of her research. Her work as a public historian has taken her across the globe. In 2017, Nicole was awarded a short-term Fellowship at the International Center for Jefferson Studies in Charlottesville, Virginia to research 18th century women’s education. Mrs. Brown also spoke in Reims, France at the 2018 National Association for Interpretation’s annual conference regarding the efficacy of using character interpretation to discuss challenging topics. During January 2019, she was awarded a Gonzales Grant by The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation to visit the University of Oxford, studying the Associates of Dr. Bray and the Church of England’s involvement in enslaved education across Colonial America. As of 2020, Mrs. Brown is completing an M.A. in American Studies at The College of William & Mary.