Ann Wager (ca. 1716–1774) took up teaching after the death of her husband William in 1748, working for two years as governess to the Burwell children at Carter's Grove. She had at least two children of her own, William and Mary.
In 1760 the Associates of Dr. Bray, a group of philanthropists in England, followed Ben Franklin’s recommendation to establish a school “for the instruction of Negro Children in the Principles of the Christian religion.” They hired Wager to teach the Bray School.
Wager taught between twenty and thirty boys and girls each year. Most were young enslaved African Americans, but Wager also educated a small number of free blacks. She taught the tenets of Anglican Christianity as well as reading, writing, and general deportment. Girls were taught “knitting, sewing and such other things as may be useful to their owners,” and Wager was instructed to “be particularly watchful that her scholars, between the school hours, do not commit any irregularities, nor fall into any indecent diversions.”
After visiting the school in 1762, Robert Carter Nicholas, a Williamsburg trustee for the Associates, reported that “at a late visitation of the school we were pretty much pleased with the scholars’ performances, as they rather exceeded our expectations.”
Over the course of fourteen years, Wager taught about 400 students at the Bray School. By the early 1770s she was slowed by illness, and after her death on August 20, 1774 the Bray School closed for good.
Ann Wager's story emphasizes an ordinary Virginia woman in an extraordinary situation. As the teacher of the first official school for African Americans in Virginia, Ann Wager’s role as teacher is both controversial and contradictory. Meet Mrs. Wager as she discusses her relationship to education, slavery, religion, and running a business as a woman at the Williamsburg Bray School.