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W&M launches Bray School Lab to research legacy of 18th-century school for free and enslaved children

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     Exterior of The Bray-Digges House at 524 Prince George Street.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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The recent discovery of the Bray School, likely America’s oldest extant schoolhouse for African Americans, provides an unprecedented opportunity to tell the stories of enslaved and free Black residents of Williamsburg, whose place in the historical narrative has previously been overlooked.

Now, a lead gift from Steven W. Kohlhagen ’69 and Gale Gibson Kohlhagen ’69 is jumpstarting the Bray School Lab, a team-based interdisciplinary research initiative at William & Mary focused on uncovering the Bray School’s history and charting an inclusive path forward.

“The imperative to tell a fuller, more 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 divides and inequities that persist in our country,” said President Katherine A. Rowe. “William & Mary is firmly committed to and ideally positioned for this ambitious undertaking.”

The lab will operate via interrelated research teams of undergraduate and graduate students, post-doctoral fellows, community members, alumni, descendants of Bray School students and other partners to catalyze collaboration across boundaries. It will embrace an interdisciplinary approach centered in the humanities, taking into account the evolving roles and social perceptions of religion, slavery, democracy, education, philanthropy and economics.

The Bray School operated from 1760 to 1774, and the school was housed from 1760 to 1765 in the building known as the Prince George House that now sits on William & Mary’s campus. The school was dedicated to the religious education of enslaved and free Black children. Research conducted in 2020 by Colonial Williamsburg connected the final dots in a decades-long trail of evidence. The work, focused on dendrochronology of the building’s timber framing, further corroborated research indicating that the building at 524 Prince George Street in Williamsburg once held the Bray School.

The research teams will examine three main areas:

  • The Bray School’s legacy, including the stories of the school’s students and teacher, and related to the restoration of the building itself
  • African American culture, including studying the impact of the African American legacy on economic development, higher education, tourism, museums, policy 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 on the corporate level in diversity and inclusion for more than 25 years. While on the board of Ametek, he became interested in the Rosenwald Schools, an initiative spearheaded by Julius Rosenwald, a major early shareholder of Ametek and president and chairman of Sears, Roebuck, and Company, and Booker T. Washington, president of the Tuskegee Institute, to build schools for Black children across the American South from 1917 to 1932. This initiative created almost 5,000 schools, including 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 Kohlhagens remember the Bray School building vividly from their time as students. It was “hiding in plain sight” near the Gamma Phi house, where Gale was a sorority sister, and was used most recently to house the military science department and ROTC. Steve was an ROTC student at William & Mary.

“All of us who went to William & Mary know the history. William & Mary was founded in 1693. We all know that number, but what was it like for people who weren't white to live in Virginia for most of William & Mary’s history? The university held people in slavery, and nearby, the Bray School was created so that enslaved and free African American children could be educated. They were part of this society, but their story hasn’t been told. It’s time,” said Steve.

They hope their gift will inspire others and incentivize additional support from individuals, foundations and corporations equally committed to the Bray School project.

The Bray School Initiative to restore and research the building is a joint effort between William & Mary and The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. The Bray School Lab will help position Williamsburg as a model for broadening and deepening nationwide dialogue around the origins of our democracy, leading up to the 250th anniversary of our nation’s founding in 2026.

“My sincere hope is that we can find descendants of the Bray School students, and that this project can help be a bridge between William & Mary, Colonial Williamsburg and the Black community in Williamsburg,” said Steve.

Gale echoes this sentiment. “As a teacher, I believe that no matter what the motivation or intention, teaching people to read is an amazing gift. It would be wonderful to find descendants of the students of the Bray School. What we saw with the Rosenwald Schools, reading about the families, was that learning reverberated through generations. What these students learned, they passed on. I find that very inspiring.”

The Bray School Initiative builds on William & Mary’s ongoing efforts to reckon with its slaveholding past. Since 2009, this work has been led by the Lemon Project: A Journey of Reconciliation, which engages students, faculty and the community in co-creating research, courses and public programs. So far, the Lemon Project has identified 81 named and 107 unnamed people enslaved at William & Mary, who will be honored as part of the university’s Hearth: Memorial to the Enslaved. Prominently located adjacent to the Wren Building, the memorial is expected to be completed in 2022. Additionally, efforts have been underway at James Monroe’s Highland that have integrated the perspective and experiences of descendants and community members in developing public history programming.

Vice Provost for Academic & Faculty Affairs Ann Marie Stock is enthusiastic about the potential for widespread impact. “The lab’s innovative methods of integrated research in the humanities and social sciences will certainly benefit William & Mary students, but the approach to discovery and dissemination can become a model for other institutions. The lab will broaden opportunities for underrepresented researchers, and it has already surfaced new synergies that are strengthening the partnership between the university and Colonial Williamsburg.” 

The Kohlhagens have been generous supporters of William & Mary for more than 50 years. They established the Gale Gibson and Steven W. Kohlhagen Scholarship Endowment, which supports Monroe Scholars majoring in the humanities with a preference for English and economics majors, as well as the Gale and Steve Kohlhagen Term Professorship Endowment, which supports a faculty member in the humanities or economics. The couple also supports the David L. Holmes Reformation Studies and American Religious History Endowment, which provides an annual stipend to support a faculty member who is distinguished in both scholarship and teaching excellence. They are also members of the Boyle Legacy Society, having made the decision to provide future support for alma mater through their estate plans.

They both contribute their time and talent as volunteer leaders. Gale is currently on the Olde Guarde Council and has served on the Alumni Association Board of Directors and as a trustee of the William & Mary Foundation. She chaired her 50th class reunion and co-chaired her 25th and 45th. She received the Alumni Medallion in 2005. Steve has served on the Reves International Advisory Board, his 50th Reunion Committee and the National Campaign Committee.

“I think William & Mary is taking a very intelligent, thoughtful and studied approach to acknowledging its history, an approach that is a model for other universities,” said Gale. “This project follows what William & Mary has started with the Lemon Project, and there’s a long way to go, but I’m excited for these important steps forward.”

To support this project, please visit giving.wm.edu.