Well, here comes the knitty gritty of what I have found so far– letters of correspondence between the Bray Associates and their American counterparts working with the Williamsburg Bray Schools. If anything, these letters may reveal the most to me about the day-to-day workings of the Williamsburg Bray School.
While reading the letters, I found myself surprisingly absorbed into the reality of their writers. Each letter presented a new outlook to me; it seemed every man had a new opinion on what the Williamsburg Bray School should achieve, and how best to achieve it. [Side Note: all the letters were written by men, though the teacher of the WBS was indeed a Mistress Ann Wagner. I would love to find a document written by Ann Wagner on the WBS, but I don't think I will have that sort of luck.] The thing about reading letters, as a historian, is that I feel like I am throwing myself into the very solid ground of stereotypes and assumed/scholarly knowledge contextualizing each letter, and then digging with my hands for the subtext. I constantly think to myself, “Alright, this was written in the late 18th century. Enlightenment, Protestanism, Reformation. It was written by a white Anglo-Saxon male living in Virginia. Racism, the White Man’s Burden, Gendered Viewpoints. Now, this little phrase right here about the sanguine goals of the school and my/his reasonable belief in their success– WHAT COULD IT MEAN?” I give myself a headache, sometimes. I contextualize like nobody’s business. But, I also wonder, do I contextualize too much? Is it possible, that if I read these letters from the viewpoint of just lil-ol-me, the open-minded vegan white Anglo-Saxon Agnostic female living in the South but transplanted from the West…. I would see some subtlety that an 18thC typical, yet rebelliously open-minded, Southern WASP male would intend to be seen but only by those as rebelliously open-minded as he? Or am I just running myself in circles?
Regardless, I have a few ideas. Generally, slave-owners in Williamsburg were willing to send their slaves to the WBS. The writers of letters feared, though, that they were sending their slaves for the wrong reasons. Many slaves were sent in their youth under the pretense of “out-of-sight, out-of-mind.” When they had achieved enough literacy to be extra-useful at household tasks, but not enough to become unwieldy, they were withdrawn from the school. One letter reads, “And indeed, many owners of slaves though they may view them in a different sight and treat them with a good deal of tenderness, concern themselves very little or not at all with their morals… When slaves are given preference, it is so that they can be prepared to do the best labor.” And, in a way, it makes perfect economic sense. Many slave-owners in Williamsburg had more slaves than they had labor to assign, and so sending the children to school was both a way to remove an inefficiency and further invest in the future value of their capital. Granted, their “capital” was people, so that’s more than a bit eerie. But the slaves were not to be underestimated, either, when it came to the power which came with a certain level of education. My findings thus far in the Virginia Gazette reveals that many slaves were aware of this fact. A few of them (at least as many as were documented) became known in the community as clever and educated slaves, who often used their skills to make attempts at freedom. So, while the WBS was founded on the goal of Christian education, it seems that neither slaves nor their masters intended to use it toward that end.
And that is what I have got so far!