During the 18th century, the city of Fredericksburg was described as “a considerable town of trade, furnishing the country around.” As such, it was deemed a rather important town and was the site of one of two schools for enslaved children established in Virginia during the Colonial period. The school was located somewhere downtown, likely near St. George’s Church. Two of the trustees in charge of operating the school were the Reverends James Marye, Sr. and later his son James Marye, Jr. Another trustee was none other than Historic Kenmore’s own, Fielding Lewis.
The school was funded and established by a group of English clergymen and philanthropists known as the Associates of Dr. Bray. Thomas Bray was an Anglican minister who had grown up without wealth. Due to his family’s financial situation, Bray found certain doors, specifically education, closed to him. Through his time in the ministry, however, he was able to gain the knowledge needed to become a great influence and practitioner of philanthropy. Towards the end of his life, he established The Associates of the Reverend Dr. Bray. Its eventual goal was to create avenues of religious and secular education for black children. While never condemning slavery, Bray felt that the souls of enslaved people needed to be saved in the Anglican faith. In order to be able to worship properly, they would need to be able to read and write. By the end of the 18th century, the Bray Associates had founded 41 libraries, donated over 22,000 books to different Anglican parishes in the colonies, and established a handful of schools across British North America.
The first Bray Associates colonial school was established in 1758 in Philadelphia. Pennsylvania’s Quaker population was decidedly anti-slavery even in the 18th century so Philadelphia already had a sizable population of free blacks. By 1780, the state of Pennsylvania completed the process of gradual emancipation and did not allow slavery, though there were loopholes in the law, one of which allowed President George Washington to use enslaved men and women at the executive mansion situated in Philadelphia. Slavery in an urban setting like Philadelphia looked different than on plantations in southern colonies. Most urban enslaved people typically performed domestic labor. This meant different expectations for enslaved people in cities, i.e. knowing how to read and write was more important. Due to these circumstances, the Bray school in Philadelphia operated quite successfully. A location for the school was procured without much effort, and a schoolmistress was also easy to come by. The school’s trustees reported full enrollment to the Bray Associates throughout its operation. The school was so successful that it reopened after the American Revolution, and the Bray Associates opened two additional schools in Philadelphia during the 19th century.
After the school in Philadelphia was established, the Associates were eager to create additional schools in the colonies. At this time, Benjamin Franklin was in London and became an Associate. He suggested several potential locations and even trustees for the next school. This second school was established in 1760 in Williamsburg. The Associates sought an enrollment number of 30, and the school opened with 24 pupils. The trustees deemed this quite successful and thought the number was a fair amount for one schoolmistress to manage. In fact, the trustees had a difficult time finding a schoolmistress at all. Their solution was that the Associates would provide additional funding for a few years but, in turn, the Associates encouraged the trustees to find charitable citizens in the town to help supplement the endowment.
Another issue at the Williamsburg school was that pupils, even those who belonged to the small free black population in town, were unable to attend regularly. They often stayed for no longer than it took to gain basic reading and writing knowledge. The goal of the Bray Associates, however, was to bring black children to the Anglican faith. This could not be realized if they left school too soon. The trustees attempted to draw up formal rules and a desired curriculum that would encourage the children to remain in the school longer, but it didn’t help the situation.
The Williamsburg school operated for a little over 13 years and was closed in 1774. The closure likely stemmed from the financial difficulties of securing a new schoolmistress after the first one had passed away as well as from the frustration over the lack of returning students year-to-year. There was not an overall lack of students, however, because a report in 1769 said the school still had a full 30 enrolled.
Due to the measured success of the Williamsburg school, the Associates began to search for other southern towns in which to continue their mission. Fredericksburg was suggested by a local minister and the supplies for the school were sent in 1764. From the start, Rev. James Marye, Sr., and Fielding Lewis were pessimistic about the school’s outlook. When the idea was presented to prominent members of the town, there was no enthusiasm. Nonetheless, in September of 1765, Fielding Lewis sent a letter to the Bray Associates informing them that the school had been opened the previous April.
There are three letters (14 September 1765, 31 October 1768, and 1 February 1772) written by Fielding to the Bray Associates that survive. They provide what little information we have about the Bray school in Fredericksburg. It appears that Fielding followed the rules and curriculum that the Williamsburg school had established. It also seems as though he faced similar problems to the Williamsburg school. He had a difficult time securing a schoolmistress for the low wages offered. Unlike Williamsburg, the Bray Associates did not offer additional money. Again, enslaved children were only permitted to attend until basic literacy was obtained, and then they were removed back to work by their owners. The school in Fredericksburg struggled with enrollment numbers. It opened to 16 pupils and dropped to nine by 1768 with only four of those attending in summer. A smaller population of black children (whether enslaved or free) and even less support from local slave owners probably affected the school’s attendance more than Williamsburg. In Fielding’s final letter to the Associates, he stated “learning them to read is rather a disadvantage to the owners, we having had some examples of that sort.” These concerns hint at what led to Virginia passing extremely restrictive ‘slave codes,’ which included a law forbidding enslaved people to be taught to read and write, throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.
It is unfortunate that more information regarding the Bray schools throughout the colonies did not survive. What is clear though is that these schools led to the literacy of a significant number of enslaved and free blacks throughout the colonies. Recently, Colonial Williamsburg determined that the building that housed the school is still intact and had been moved to William & Mary’s campus. They added a historical marker honoring the school and the children who attended it. As we gain knowledge and rediscover the past, stories like those of the enslaved and free children who gained a new foothold in a literate world are stories that demand to be told.
Manager of Interpretation and Visitor Services
 Oscar H. Darter, Colonial Fredericksburg and Neighborhood in Perspective, (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1957), 62-63.