Dr. Bray’s Associates
Dr. Bray’s Associates
Thomas Bray. Thomas Bray was an Anglican clergyman dedicated to missionary and philanthropic endeavors in England and its colonies, especially the education and conversion of American blacks. Trained in theology at Oxford, he served as an Anglican curate, chaplain, and vicar, but his real interests were in organizing missionary and philanthropic enterprises. He was a key figure in the founding of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (S.P.G.), the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (S.P.C.K.), and the Associates of Dr. Bray.
Early Years of the Associates. After a brief visit to America in 1699, Bray successfully petitioned the Crown for a charter for the S.P.G., which was established in 1701. Its purpose was to send missionaries to the colonies to minister to all people, but its outreach to the Native Americans and blacks was secondary to that regarding the European colonists. Therefore in 1724 the Associates of Dr. Bray was formed to minister to the spiritual and educational needs of the Native Americans and blacks. Shortly before his death Bray reorganized the Associates and expanded their number from four to about thirty. The new associates had several missions: to convert and educate blacks in America, to distribute books and create parochial libraries, and to establish a charitable colony (Georgia). One of the associates was James Oglethorpe, leader in the movement to found a charitable colony. Georgia was their first priority, but after the Georgia Charter was granted, the Associates of Dr. Bray ended their affiliation with the Georgia Trustees. With the colony founded, the Associates concentrated in the 1730s and 1740s on distributing books and founding parochial libraries. In the 1750s they turned their attention to the education and conversion of blacks. Early efforts included not only distributing books but also sending out missionaries as catechists to Georgia and South Carolina. When this proved unsuccessful, the Associates made plans for the formal education of blacks and the establishment of schools.
Schools . Bray’s Associates began with the idea of sending itinerant schoolmasters to teach blacks, but they soon decided to open a school in Philadelphia. They sought the advice of Benjamin Franklin, who was enthusiastic and encouraging. He suggested that if it worked the Associates should start more schools in other colonies. The trial school opened in Philadelphia in 1758 under the directorship of the Reverend William Sturgeon, the S.P.G’s catechist to Philadelphia’s blacks. The trial period was to last three years at an expense of twenty pounds a year. The school started with one mistress and about thirty pupils. The venture was so successful that in 1760 the Associates established two similar schools in New York City and Williamsburg, Virginia, and another school in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1762. The Williamsburg school was perhaps the most successful. Franklin had recommended that Williamsburg’s postmaster, William Hunter, and the president of William and Mary, William Dawson, supervise the organization of the school, hire the teacher, and order books. The first schoolmistress received twenty pounds and had twenty-four students. In 1765 the Associates opened a school in Fredericksburg, Virginia, but since the black population was so low there, the school closed in 1770. The beginning
of the Revolution interfered with the operation of the other schools, and all of them closed by 1775. However, in 1774 the Associates purchased land in Philadelphia for a school for blacks and after the war, in 1786, opened the Negro Charity School. Their other attempts to institute black schooling—in Chester, Maryland; Edenton, Wilmington, and Bath, North Carolina; and Yorktown and Norfolk, Virginia—failed, partly because teachers willing to teach blacks were difficult to find.
Impact. The Associates met with many obstacles in trying to carry out their plans for the Christianization and education of blacks: teachers were hard to find; some colonies outlawed the education of blacks; slave owners resisted; and fear of educated slaves causing rebellions slowed acceptance of the idea. Furthermore, African dialects made it hard for blacks to understand what they were learning and hard for teachers to instruct them. Perhaps the Associates in England were too naive about what they could accomplish in the racial environment in the colonies. Ultimately the Associates educated and converted only a small portion—perhaps two or three thousand—of the approximate five-hundred thousand African Americans in the prerevolutionary American colonies. However, they were successful in setting precedents, in drawing colonial support for black education from influential men such as Franklin, and in providing a counter ideology to the one held by slave owners and others opposed to literacy for blacks.
Richard Beale Davis, Intellectual Life in the Colonial South, 1585-1763 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1978);
Edgar L. Pennington, “Dr. Thomas Bray’s Associates and Their Work among the Negroes,” Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, 48 (1938): 311-403;
John C. Van Home, ed., Religious Philanthropy and Colonial Slavery: The American Correspondence of the Associates of Dr. Bray, 1717-1777 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985).