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The oldest existing U.S. schoolhouse for Black children has been moved to a museum

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

When it comes to history, sometimes it's right under our noses. That was definitely the case in Williamsburg, Va., until recently, when researchers there made an incredible find. Jahd Khalil from VPM News reports on history's new home.

JAHD KHALIL, BYLINE: For decades, a small white house on William & Mary's campus went unnoticed.

RITA COOPER: I passed by it, unaware that it was here.

KHALIL: Rita Cooper has lived in Williamsburg, Va., for almost 20 years. She can list off other buildings nearby but didn't know about that one.

COOPER: Sorority houses over here, churches there, William & Mary bookstore, commercial areas - it's a hub of the community.

KHALIL: But Friday, the white-sided building was the center of attention, not only because it was on top of a truck. In 2021, researchers announced it was the Williamsburg Bray School. And they believe it's the oldest existing building in the U.S. that educated Black children. As hundreds of people watched the leggy, teal trailer crawl through town, workers trimmed oaks and magnolias to clear the way for it.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHAINSAW REVVING)

KHALIL: Loni Wright watched the house roll by where it was originally built in 1760. The former student said the move is bringing the school and its history new attention.

LONI WRIGHT: So I was excited to see a resurgence of, I guess, interest around it because it's something that we didn't really talk about. It's like you see it on the tour, and then we kept it moving.

KHALIL: Twenty years ago, an English professor had a hunch that the building was still somewhere on campus. He pored over books and old photos, but the real answer was inside. So the president of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation reached out to Katherine Rowe, the president of William & Mary.

KATHERINE ROWE: He called me up one day, and he said, hey; how do you feel if we rip open a wall in one of your dorms? And I said, cool, let's - but why?

KHALIL: After studying the wood framing in 2020, researchers confirmed it was the Bray House, which over time was renovated, refurbished and lost to history. Now the house is on its way to Colonial Williamsburg, a museum where actors interpret the history of early America. Wright wants the school to keep gaining attention.

WRIGHT: I hope that we don't just move it and leave it there and that we are able to have events around it and talk about it.

KHALIL: The museum is planning to talk about the school's legacy. It's now in a prominent entryway to the museum. Once it opens, actors will talk about race, religion and education in the 18th century. Between 3 and 400 children learned here. But today, only 86 of them are known.

JANICE CANADAY: Mary Jones, Elijah Jones, Dennis, Aggie, Roger, Sam.

KHALIL: Janice Canaday and other descendants of the children read their names at a dedication ceremony Friday afternoon. Canaday learned about her connection to the school through oral histories.

CANADAY: So these were people who had to sing their story, you know, tell stories to tell their history, and they spoke it.

KHALIL: Researchers say they'll use these oral histories as they uncover the hundreds of other students' names. The president of Colonial Williamsburg, Cliff Fleet, said this will help center Black history in the early days of American democracy.

CLIFF FLEET: That is work that we must do to understand who we are as a people.

KHALIL: Both the museum and the college called the plans for the Bray School another step in intentionally inclusive approaches to researching and teaching American history. Colonial Williamsburg began having Black employees in their interpretive programs in 1979. And in 2009, the college's board acknowledged the university enslaved people from its founding. It set into motion The Lemon Project, an effort to examine the institution's past. Loni Wright, the William & Mary alumnus, said students have pushed that, too, through efforts to rename college buildings.

WRIGHT: There were lots of protests. There were lots of petitions. And then eventually, you know, they put in the work to change the names.

KHALIL: Colonial Williamsburg scheduled to open the school to the public in September 2024. For NPR News, I'm Jahd Khalil in Williamsburg, Va.

(SOUNDBITE OF NAS SONG, "I CAN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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RaceEducation
Jahd Khalil