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During the 18th century, a time when married women had few rights, Elizabeth Bray Allen Smith Stith used her own funds to establish a free school for poor children. It was located in a building (no longer standing) located on the site of the current Smithfield Masonic lodge.

  • Elizabeth Bray Allen Smith Stith's signature, Isle of Wight County Records, courtesy of the Library of Virginia.
  • The Library of Virginia honored Elizabeth Bray Allen Smith Stith as one of its Virginia Women in History in 2015.
  • The Virginia Women in History Digital Trail is made possible by the Library of Virginia and American Evolution: Virginia to America, 1619–2019.
Elizabeth Bray (ca. 1692–by February 22, 1774) grew up near Williamsburg and, unlike many young women at the time, learned to read and write. She married Arthur Allen in 1711 and after his death sixteen years later she managed his Surry County plantation and large brick home that later became known as Bacon's Castle. In order to secure the property that she had inherited for herself and her children, in 1729 she entered into a marriage contract with Arthur Smith. In 1753 she established a £140 trust fund to create a free school for six poor boys and girls in Smithfield. She named the trustees and gave directions for the construction of the building. She specified that boys would study reading, writing, and arithmetic for three years and that girls would study reading and writing for two years. After their schooling the boys would be apprenticed to learn a trade and the girls would learn about household matters from local women.

After her third marriage early in the 1760s, Elizabeth Stith continued her interest in the school. When she wrote her will, she provided for the education of a goddaughter and left £120 and the remainder of her estate to the Smithfield school, which continued to operate at least until the Revolutionary War. She was a wealthy woman with personal property valued at £350, including five enslaved laborers, when she died shortly before her will was proved in the Surry County Court on February, 22, 1774.

Reprinted with permission of the Library of Virginia.

Joan R. Gunderson, "Allen, Elizabeth Bray," in Dictionary of Virginia Biography, eds. John T. Kneebone et al (Richmond: Library of Virginia, 1998), 1: 77–78.