W&M Launches Bray School Lab to Research the Legacy of the 18th Century School for Free and Slaved Children
by Claire De Lisle, University advancement
June 17, 2021
The recent discovery of the Bray School, possibly America’s oldest extant school for African Americans, offers an unprecedented opportunity to tell the stories of the slave and free black residents of Williamsburg, whose place in historical narrative has already been neglected.
Now, a lead gift by Steven W. Kohlhagen ’69 and Gale Gibson Kohlhagen ’69 launches the Bray School Lab, an interdisciplinary team-based research initiative at William & Mary focused on uncovering the history of the Bray School and creating a path to be continued inclusive.
“The imperative to tell a more comprehensive and inclusive story of our nation’s history has never been stronger. What we can learn from the history of the Bray School will be an important bridge to the racial divisions and inequalities that persist in our country, ”said President Katherine A. Rowe. “William & Mary is firmly committed and ideally positioned for this ambitious endeavor. “
The lab will operate through interdependent research teams of undergraduate and graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, community members, alumni, descendants of Bray school students and other partners. to catalyze collaboration across borders. It will take an interdisciplinary approach centered on the humanities, taking into account the changing roles and social perceptions of religion, slavery, democracy, education, philanthropy and the economy. .
The Bray School operated from 1760 to 1774, and the school was housed from 1760 to 1765 in the building known as Prince George House which now stands on the William & Mary campus. The school was dedicated to the religious education of slave and free black children. Research conducted in 2020 by Colonial Williamsburg connected the final dots in a decades-long line of evidence. The work, focused on the dendrochronology of the building’s timber framing, further corroborated research indicating that the building at 524 Prince George Street in Williamsburg was once home to Bray School.
The research teams will examine three main areas:
- The legacy of the Bray School, including the stories of the students and the school teacher, and linked to the restoration of the building itself
- African-American culture, including the study of the impact of African-American heritage on economic development, higher education, tourism, museums, political implications and urban planning, with Williamsburg and William & Mary as a case study
- The History of African American Education in Virginia and Beyond
The lab will then create and disseminate easily accessible digital resources for K-12 teachers, university students and faculty, and the general public.
Steve Kohlhagen has been involved at the company level with diversity and inclusion for over 25 years. While on the Ametek board, he took an interest in the Rosenwald Schools, an initiative led by Julius Rosenwald, one of Ametek’s early significant shareholders and chairman and chairman of Sears, Roebuck, and Company, and Booker T. Washington, president of Tuskegee Institute, to build schools for black children across the southern United States from 1917 to 1932. This initiative created nearly 5,000 schools, some in Virginia.
When Steve saw the article in the Washington post about the Bray school, he recalls, he immediately asked how he could get involved.
The Kohlhagen remember the Bray School building well from their student days. It was “hidden in plain sight” as part of the ROTC building, which Steve frequented as an ROTC student, and right behind the Gamma Phi house, where Gale was a sorority sister.
“All of us who have been to William & Mary’s know the story. William & Mary was founded in 1693. We all know that number, but what was it like for people who were not white to live in Virginia for most of William & Mary’s history? The university held people in slavery, and nearby the Bray School was established for enslaved and free African-American children to attend school. They were part of this society, but their story has not been told. It’s about time, ”said Steve.
They hope their donation will inspire others and spur additional support from individuals, foundations and businesses also committed to the Bray School project.
The Bray School initiative to restore and research the building is a joint effort of William & Mary and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. The Bray School Lab will help position Williamsburg as a model for broadening and deepening the nationwide dialogue around the origins of our democracy, leading to the 250th anniversary of our nation’s founding in 2026.
“My sincere hope is that we can find descendants of the students at Bray School and that this project can serve as a bridge between William & Mary, Colonial Williamsburg and the black community of Williamsburg,” Steve said.
Gale echoes this sentiment. “As a teacher, I believe that whatever the motivation or intention, teaching people to read is an incredible gift. It would be wonderful to find descendants of the students at Bray School. What we’ve seen with the Rosenwald schools, reading about families, is that learning spills over through the generations. What these students learned, they passed on. I find that very inspiring. “
The Bray School initiative builds on William & Mary’s continued efforts to accommodate his past as slavery. Since 2009, this work has been led by the Lemon Project: A Journey of Reconciliation, which engages students, faculty, and the community to co-create public research, courses, and programs. So far, Project Lemon has identified 81 nominees and 107 anonymous enslaved people at William & Mary’s, who will be honored as part of the university’s Hearth: Memorial to the Enslaved. Located prominently next to the Wren building, the memorial is expected to be completed in 2022. Additionally, efforts have been made at James Monroe’s Highland that have incorporated the perspectives and experiences of descendants and community members into the development of a public history program.
Vice-Rector for Academic and Faculty Affairs, Ann Marie Stock is excited about the potential for widespread impact. “The innovative integrated research methods of the humanities and social sciences laboratory will certainly benefit William & Mary’s students, but the discovery and dissemination approach can become a model for other institutions. The lab will expand opportunities for under-represented researchers, and it has already shown new synergies that strengthen the partnership between the university and Colonial Williamsburg.
The Kohlhagens have generously supported William & Mary for over 50 years. They created the Gale Gibson and Steven W. Kohlhagen Scholarship Endowment, which supports Monroe Scholars specializing in the humanities with a preference for English and economics, as well as the Gale and Steve Kohlhagen Term Professorship Endowment, which supports a member of the humanities faculty. or economical. The couple also support the David L. Holmes Reformation Studies and American Religious History Endowment, which offers an annual stipend to support a faculty member who stands out for both scholarship and teaching excellence. They are also members of the Boyle Legacy Society, having made the decision to provide future support to the Alma Mater through their estate plans.
They both donate their time and talent as volunteer leaders. Gale is currently a board member of Olde Guarde and has served on the board of the Alumni Association and as a trustee of the William & Mary Foundation. She chaired its 50th class reunion and co-chaired its 25th and 45th. She was awarded the Alumni Medallion in 2005. Steve has served on Reves’ international advisory board, its 50th meeting committee, and the national campaign committee.
“I think William & Mary takes a very smart, thoughtful and studied approach to recognizing its history, an approach that is a model for other universities,” said Gale. “This project follows on from what William & Mary started with the Lemon Project, and there is still a long way to go, but I am delighted with these important advances. “