Archaeologists have recovered more than 20 stubs from worn-out slate pencils on the site of Williamsburg's pioneering 18th-century black school. (Mark St. John Erickson / July 31, 2013)
Twenty-odd stubs from worn-out slate pencils may not seem like that significant a find in a region so rich with history that noteworthy archaeological discoveries are common.
But at the site of the 18th-century Bray School in Williamsburg, they're providing a revealing look at a landmark experiment in black education.
Colonial Williamsburg archaeologist Mark Kostro, center, looks on as students in the joint Colonial Williamsburg-College of William and Mary field school search for evidence of a pioneering 1700s black school. (Mark St. John Erickson / July 31, 2013)
Though only a few tantalizing examples were unearthed when the joint Colonial Williamsburg-College of William and Mary Field School in Historical Archaeology began exploring the grounds around the college's Brown Hall in 2012, many more have cropped up since the students returned this summer for two 5-week sessions of digging.
And with the discovery of an especially concentrated cache in a layer of household trash located not far from the school's front door, the number of well-used stubs has become compelling.
"One of the things we hoped to learn more about through archaeology was the Bray School's curriculum," Colonial Williamsburg archaeologist Mark Kostro says.
"We know very little about 18th-century education -- and even less about black education. But what we have here is a large quantity and density of slate pencils that goes far beyond what you'd expect to see in a normal household assemblage."
Founded in 1760 by the college and an Anglo-American missionary group whose trustees included Benjamin Franklin, the pioneering Bray School is likely to have touched the lives of several hundred young blacks over its 14 years, helping give Williamsburg a population of slaves and freemen who were unusually literate.
Numerous ads in the Virginia Gazette describe runaways who could read and write, and who declared they had the right to be free. Some students may have played roles in the secret congregation of slaves and free blacks that led to the founding of America's first African-American church in the late 1700s, say the historians of Williamsburg's historic First Baptist Church.
Exactly how many young black servants learned or perfected those skills at the Bray School -- where Williamsburg masters sent them in the hopes of adding value to their investments -- is still unknown, says Rockefeller Library fellow Julie Richter, a W&M history lecturer who is studying the scant documentary trail left by the school's pupils.
According to those records at least two of the students were literate, and schoolmistress Ann Wager's qualifications as a teacher make it likely that there were many more.
But not until the discovery of so many additional slate pencils this year was there any solid evidence that the Bray School may have been filled with more than a handful of young black readers and writers.
"Each new thing the archaeologists find makes the school and its students come that much more alive," Richter says.
"Now you can imagine them writing. You can imagine the sound of all those pencils scratching against their slates. And that makes everything we've thought about the Bray School a little bit more real."
-- Mark St. John Erickson
William and Mary senior Hannah Goad measures the profile of an 18th-century refuse pit unearthed during the search for evidence of Williamsburg's pioneering Bray School for black children. (Mark St. John Erickson / July 31, 2013)