Tutor and Mistress of the Bray School in Williamsburg
Ann Wager’s origins are unknown, except that she was born by 1716. Ann was educated by her father, despite her mother’s wishes – it wasn’t considered ‘proper’ for a young woman to learn or support herself. Her mother discouraged her education, but her father persevered.
Ann married William Wager of Williamsburg, Virginia, and they had two children. Their son, also named William, was born by 1733; by 1760 he was a justice of the peace in Elizabeth City County, and by 1756 he represented that county in the House of Burgesses.
Ann’s husband had probably died by 1748. In 1750, she and her son William settled his estate. There is no indication in the records of how much real or personal property made up the estate.
Obviously, Ann Wager was literate and cultured. As a widow, she supported her family by teaching. She was employed by Carter Burwell at Carter’s Grove Plantation by 1748, and received 20 pounds for ‘Schooling my Children two years.’ She may have been at Carter’s Grove until 1754.
In the 1750s, court records show that Ann Wager was also paid 18 pounds by the estate of Edward Champion Travis. She also received monies from the estate of George Wells, perhaps for teaching his children. In the early 1760s, she had a dozen or so white pupils in Williamsburg, whose parents held her in ‘high repute for her care and method of teaching.’
The Reverend John Waring in London wrote to the Reverend Thomas Dawson, Commissary and rector of Bruton Parish, on February 29, 1760, informing him that the Bray Associates had “lately agreed to open a School at Williamsburg for the Instruction of Negro Children in the Principles of the Christian Religion.”
The letter continued by direction that “You will with all convenient Speed open a School for this purpose: & As ’tis probable that Some of Each Sex may be sent for Instruction, The Associates are therefore of the opinion that a Mistress will be preferable to a Master, as she may teach the Girls to Sew, knit, &c. as well as all to read & say their Catechism. They think 30 Children or thereabout will Sufficiently employ one person…” In addition, the letter listed the books, such as primers, printed Anglican sermons, and other religious tracts, that would be sent for use at the school. The Bible was certainly the principal text.
The Bray School for Negro Children was funded by the Bray Society in England, and the school was a rare opportunity for enslaved children of 18th-century Williamsburg to receive a basic, formal education. Ann Wager was asked to be the school mistress beginning on September 29, 1760. Robert Carter Nicholas, local trustee for the Bray Associates, oversaw its operations.
At any one time, Ann taught about thirty enslaved and free black children ranging in age from three to ten. Enrollment lists show that most students at the Bray School were enslaved, but a few free black children also attended. Classes were held in Wager’s home beginning at 6:00 AM in the summer and 7:00 AM in the winter. Until 1766 she occupied a house rented from Dudley Digges, probably at the corner of Henry and Ireland Streets.
She was not only responsible for teaching the children to read and write, but to read the Bible, to know the ‘Principles of the Christian Religion,’ and to explain the ‘Church Catechism.’ In addition she was to teach them how to dress and behave as model black children while discouraging ‘idleness & suppress[ing] the Beginnings of vice’ and to be ‘faithful and obedient to their Masters.’
The Associates intended some of the Books of Common Prayer they sent to Mrs. Wager to be ‘given to the Children when qualified to use them at Church.’ The minister at Bruton Parish heard the children recite the catechism.
During her fourteen years as school mistress, Mrs. Wager reached a large number of children, influencing their religious beliefs and practices. If she emphasized obedience in her instruction, she also equipped her students with skills they could use to advantage in a slave society – chief among them reading and writing.
Robert Carter Nicholas, in a letter to the Rev. John Waring dated 13 September 1765, nine years before her death, stated that the “mistress is pretty much advanced in Years & I fear Labors of the School will shortly be too much for her.” On 16 February 1769, Nicholas again wrote to Waring that “Mr. Hunter had fixed the Mistress’s Salary at 7 pounds a Quarter, a Sum for 30 Scholars, much less than is paid for schooling in this City to other Mistresses.”
On November 17 1774, Carter wrote to Waring that “I have to advise you of the Death of Mrs. Wager, the Mistress of the Bray School at Williamsburg.” He discontinued the School until, he said, “I can receive your further instructions.”