”I said in my heart, here are my convictions. What shall I do?
Shall I be inactive and permit prejudice, the mother of abominations,
to remain undisturbed? Or shall I venture to enlist in the ranks of those
who with the Sword of Truth dare hold combat with prevailing iniquity?
Prudence Crandall (1803-1890) was controversial for her education of African American girls in Canterbury, Connecticut. In the fall of 1831, she opened a private school, which was boycotted when she admitted a 17-year-old African-American female student in fall 1833. This is widely regarded as the first integrated classroom in the United States. Crandall is Connecticut’s official State Heroine.
In October 1831, with the help of her sister Almira, Prudence purchased the recently vacated Paine mansion on the village green. There she opened a private girl’s academy, where she taught the daughters of many of the town’s wealthy families.
The Canterbury Female Boarding School enjoyed the complete support of the community. Crandall’s curriculum was rigorous, as she taught the same subjects being taught at prominent schools for boys: arithmetic, English grammar, geography, history, chemistry, astronomy and moral philosophy.
The school was soon ranked as one of the best in the state. Basic tuition and room and board was $25 per quarter. Students paid extra fees for instruction in drawing, painting, music and French. With tuition and fees, Crandall was able to pay off the $1500 mortgage within a year.
At that time, white and African American children in Connecticut received a free elementary education at district schools. No further public or private education was available to black children. Crandall became aware of these injustices through her housekeeper Marcia Davis, and Marcia’s friend Sarah Harris, both African Americans.
Sarah’s father was a free African American who owned a small farm near Canterbury, and he was the local distributor of the abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, and Marcia sometimes left copies of the newspaper where Crandall would see them. Sarah had attended the same district school as the white girls who were now attending Crandall’s school as teenagers.
In the fall of 1832, Sarah Harris asked Crandall if she might be allowed to attend the Canterbury Female Boarding School. Originally from Norwich, Connecticut, a town with a large African American population, Sarah Harris’ dream was to return to Norwich and teach African American children there. Crandall’s academy could give her the education she needed to achieve that goal.
As a Quaker, Prudence Crandall opposed slavery and believed in educating African Americans, but was uncertain of what the repercussions might be if she admitted a black student. After much soul searching, during which she had to face her own surprising prejudices, Crandall agreed to allow Harris to attend the school as a day student.
A number of Canterbury’s leading gentlemen, including the secretary of Board of Visitors for Crandall’s school, were supporters of the colonizationist movement who feared the integration of the races and proposed sending all African Americans in the United States to Africa. This issue was being passionately debated at the time Crandall admitted Sarah Harris to her school.
When word got out that there was a black girl attending classes at the Canterbury School, many prominent townspeople objected and pressured to have Harris dismissed from the school, but Crandall refused. Parents then threatened to withdraw their daughters if Harris remained in the school.
Prudence Crandall soon realized she must find another way to keep the school open. In early 1833, she traveled to Boston to meet with prominent abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, publisher of The Liberator. They discussed the possibility of closing the academy and reopening with only African American students. With Garrison’s assistance Crandall traveled throughout the northeast, seeking students and supporters. In late February 1833, she dismissed her remaining white students.
Prudence Crandall’s excitement and sense of accomplishment at running a school to help young black women was short-lived. She was immediately ostracized by her neighbors, and criticized by her community and the state of Connecticut. A delegation of town leaders urged her to abandon the project, but Crandall refused.
A doctor who lived opposite the school, Andrew Harris, refused to treat her black students even though he had been one of her original trustees. One week after the The Liberator ad appeared, politician Andrew Judson, who was also a close neighbor and former Crandall trustee, seized a hastily called town meeting as a platform. No school for “n—-r girls” would ever stand across the street from his house, he was said to have vowed, promising that if black students did show up he would use an old Colonial law to have them arrested as paupers.
The four most prominent men in Canterbury arranged a meeting in which they told Crandall that they were intent on destroying her school. The men objected to educating African Americans in their town. Women in the 1800s were raised to obey men’s wishes, but Crandall was strong in her convictions and did not to bend to public pressure. On March 9, the town held a protest meeting in response to Crandall’s proposed school. In 1833, women could not vote, hold public office or speak at public meetings.
Therefore, Crandall enlisted Unitarian minister Samuel May and abolitionist lecturer Arnold Buffum to represent her at the meeting. The three decided that they would offer to relocate the school further away from the center of town if someone would buy Crandall’s current home.
Although they tried, May and Buffum were not allowed to speak at the meeting on the grounds that they did not live in the town of Canterbury. The town voted to protest the school. May (uncle of future author Louisa May Alcott) waited until the meeting was over to make his speech. Some people stopped to listen, but one of the prominent townspeople ordered everyone out of the building.
Although the School for Young Ladies and Little Misses of Color opened with only three students on April 1, 1833, Crandall had recruited others from Boston, Providence and New York City. Enrollment soon rose to 24 students, most of whom were boarders. The curriculum was identical to that of Crandall’s first Canterbury school. Inside the school, the girls enjoyed the peaceful activities of lectures and study but when they ventured outside they were met with threats and violence. The townspeople jeered rude comments at the girls and threw stones, eggs and manure at them. Shopkeepers refused to sell them food. The town doctors would not attend to their needs.
Most store owners refused to sell Crandall the goods she needed to run the school; she was forced to have her supplies shipped in. The Congregational church refused to allow her students to attend services, while other townspeople contaminated the water in the school’s well with animal feces. Under the cover of darkness, someone attempted to set fire to the building in January 1834.
At this time, in Connecticut, as elsewhere, the notion of black equality was at odds with the nearly universal belief of whites in their own superiority. Many abolitionists did not think slaves should become citizens. These were colonizationists who believed that blacks could never live peacefully in white America and should be sent back to Africa. They feared crime and discord, and worse, ‘amalgamation,’ the prospect of whites and blacks mixing socially and carnally.
Despite all this, in mid-April Crandall wrote, “In the midst of this affliction, I am as happy as any moment in my life.”
Lacking no legal means to prevent Prudence Crandall from opening her school, on May 24, 1833, local politician Andrew Judson pushed legislation through the Connecticut Assembly. The so-called ‘Black Law’ made it illegal for African American students from outside the state to attend a school in Connecticut without local permission. In Canterbury, people rang church bells, fired guns and lighted bonfires to celebrate the new law.
Convinced the Assembly’s action was neither morally just nor constitutionally correct, Crandall ignored the law and continued to recruit and teach her students until her arrest on June 27, 1833. She was placed in the county jail for one night and then released under bond to await her trial. Crandall was charged with instructing students who were not inhabitants of Connecticut without the prior consent of the civil authority and selectmen of her village in violation of the Black Law.
The Black Law and Crandall’s resistance to it sparked a year-long debate among New Englanders on the issues of abolition and colonization. The Liberator thundered against the injustice, and soon all of America knew of Canterbury and Prudence Crandall. The conflict allowed abolitionists to dramatize the evils of prejudice. Leaders in the movement helped Crandall recruit students for her school, gave her support, and provided for her financially.
Prudence Crandall’s first trial was held on August 23, 1833 at the Windham County Court. Prominent abolitionist, Arthur Tappan of New York, donated $10,000 to hire the best lawyers to defend Crandall. Newspapers carried long stories describing the testimony. However, the testimony of witnesses was less important than the lawyers’ arguments and the judges’ rulings.
Crandall’s defense was led by William Ellsworth, the son of Oliver Ellsworth, a signer of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Ellsworth contended that because blacks had received Revolutionary Army war pensions and were considered citizens in other states, they should also be considered citizens of Connecticut.
Prosecutor Andrew Judson responded with a Catch 22 type argument: If blacks could not vote, as in Connecticut they could not (the new state constitution of 1818 specifically denied them the franchise), then it followed that they could not be considered full citizens. He also stated that freed African Americans were not designated as citizens in any state.
The county court jury ultimately failed to reach a verdict, and the case went to a second trial in October 1833, at which Crandall’s lawyers challenged the Black Law on the grounds that it violated the clause in the U.S. Constitution that said no state could deny to others rights it gave its own citizens. The crucial question was whether blacks could be considered citizens. According to this argument, the Constitution did not entitle African Americans to the freedom of education. This time Crandall was found guilty but appealed the decision to Connecticut’s Supreme Court. While she and her abolitionist supporters pursued their legal challenges to the Black Law, her school continued to operate.
The Crandall case was taken to the Supreme Court of Errors on appeal in July 1834. The Supreme Court of Connecticut reversed the decision of the lower court, dismissing the case on July 22, 1834 because of a technicality. The lower court decision that African Americans were not protected as citizens, however, remained standing.
In the meantime, Prudence Crandall, her students and their supporters had been targets of varying degrees of harassment. The threats and violence tended to increase when it appeared the legal tactics were failing. Although Crandall had won a technical legal victory and was free to return to her school, the townspeople of Canterbury seemed to be unable to accept the Supreme Court’s decision.
For the safety of her students, her family and herself, Prudence Crandall closed her school on September 10, 1834. Within days the mansion that served as the school building was up for sale, the students gone, and Crandall in retreat to her father’s farm outside Canterbury.
Soon after the close of Crandall’s school, the tide of abolitionism had begun to turn in Connecticut. A new anti-slavery society was established. Phillip Pearl, the chairman of the committee that had passed the Black Law, told a friend, “I could weep tears of blood for the part I took in that matter – I now regard that law as utterly abominable.” In 1838, Connecticut’s Black Law was repealed.
In 1883, Mark Twain helped obtain a $400 a year pension for Prudence Crandall from the Connecticut Assembly. One hundred and twelve citizens of Canterbury had signed a petition requesting the pension and said they were ashamed of how they had treated Prudence. Twain also offered to buy her former home in Canterbury for her retirement, but Crandall kindly declined the offer.
In her last years, journalists sought out the old woman who already seemed to them a historical figure. Her brother had died and they found her living in a rudely furnished, book-filled 8 foot by 12 foot cabin. Nevertheless she professed to be happy there and still idealistic.
The Bottom Line
Education is the greatest of equalizers. The Virginia Assembly in the years before the Civil War stated its philosophy regarding education for African Americans, whether free or slave:
We have, as far as possible, closed every avenue by which light can enter their minds. If we could extinguish their capacity to see the light, our work would be completed; they would then be on a level with the beasts of the field, and we should be safe.
Evidence suggests that American states, north and south, attempted to ensure that blacks would not receive the same educational opportunities as whites, not only before the Civil War, but after it. It was not until 1954 that the U.S. Supreme Court decreed that all people must be given equal opportunities for learning. Nevertheless, the gap in education that is the legacy of generations of inferior schooling for blacks has yet to be closed. That is why Nicole Baker Fulghum and The Expectations Project (http://www.expectations.org/issues) can be seen as an extension of the work of great leaders like Prudence Crandall.
In your opinion, how can early childhood education, high standards and expectations, quality teachers and leadership, access to quality schools, trauma-informed schools and racial justice serves as the biggest game-changers for students, parents and communities? Why and how will this take grit?