African American Material Culture, 1700s-1800s: Social Relationships

Social Relationships


  1. Well of the Bray School. Williamsburg VA, ca. 1760-1774. College of William and Mary, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

The Associates of the Late Dr. Thomas Bray founded the Bray School in 1760 with the goal of educating both free and enslaved African American children. The mission was to teach these children reading and the Christian faith. Letters and other documents help historians understand how and why the Bray School was founded. One letter from Rev. William Yates and Robert Carter Nicholas to Rev. John Waring highlights some of the concerns that the school’s founders and supporters had. One such concern is the efficacy of the school: were students learning? Teaching children reading and Christianity took time, and William Yates and Robert Carter Nicholas were also concerned that citizens would send enslaved children to a school in an effort to keep them out of trouble, but remove them before they could attain the desired education. Yet another concern was the perceived threat that educated slaves posed, although those involved in running or funding the school dismissed this claim entirely.

  1. Facial Reconstruction, Burial 3, Female 30-40 Years. Albany, New York. Courtesy of the New York State Museum.
  1. Facial Reconstruction, Burial 13, Female 30-40 Years. Albany, New York. Courtesy of the New York State Museum.

Due to the sensitive nature of these facial reconstructions, they are not available for viewing online. To see these faces and others, check out Lois Miner Huey’s book,  Forgotten Bones: Uncovering a Slave Cemetery, Minneapolis: Millbrook Press, 2016.

As construction workers dug a trench near Albany, New York in 2005, they discovered a human skull. Archaeologists later found 13 patches of dark soil, which marked grave sites. These graves were dated to sometime before 1790, and are thought to form a slave cemetery. Nails and pins before 1790 were handmade and expensive. The number of nails in each coffin and the number of pins used to shroud each body suggest that great care was taken as families mourned these individuals. These busts are reconstructions of the faces of two of the women buried at this site. Scientists used the size and shape of each skull and information about the individual’s diet to hypothesize how each person would have looked.

Additional Resources (Bray School):

Van Horne, John C. Religious Philanthropy and Colonial Slavery: The American Correspondence of the Associates of Dr. Bray, 1717-1777. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985. 184-188.

Bly, Antonio T. “In Pursuit of Letters: A History of the Bray Schools for Enslaved Children in Colonial Virginia.” History of Education Quarterly 51, no. 4 (2011): 429-59. doi:10.1111/j.1748-5959.2011.00353.x.

Additional Resources (Slave Cemetery):

Huey, Lois Miner. Forgotten Bones: Uncovering a Slave Cemetery. Minneapolis: Millbrook Press, 2016.


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