On April Fool’s Day in 1833, the little hamlet of Canterbury, Connecticut, was in an uproar. A new private school had opened that day, and it was no joke. A few blocks away, with local politicians leading the charge, angry townspeople gathered at the Congregational Church to demand that the state legislature pass a law to put it out of business. The air was thick with wild denunciations of the school’s owner and operator, a 29-year-old teacher and entrepreneur named Prudence Crandall.
What was so reprehensible about this school? Just two years earlier, Crandall had opened her first one, in the same building, to universal acclaim. She and her sister Almira had bought and paid for the spacious, Georgian-style 1805 mansion with a $500 down payment and a $1,500 mortgage. They called it the Canterbury Female Boarding School. The reviews from the families of its more than two dozen white female students were stellar.
However, the new school that Prudence opened on April 1, 1833, carried a name that sent shockwaves throughout Connecticut and prompted the April First commotion: Miss Crandall’s School for Young Ladies and Little Misses of Color.
Prudence Crandall had done the unthinkable. She was determined to run a school exclusively for — hold on to your hats — young black girls. They would come from among free black families in New England, where slavery had largely died out and the nascent abolitionist movement was about to blossom. Before the firestorm ended, Crandall would be vilified and threatened in the most vicious and disgusting terms.
Racism in Connecticut? Weren’t such ugly sentiments confined to the Deep South? Not at all. In America’s early days, it was as widespread in all parts of the country as it was in most of the world — which is to say, it was common. Indeed, slavery itself was not foreign to New England. In his fascinating biography, Prudence Crandall’s Legacy, historian Donald E. Williams Jr. writes,
Many of the free blacks Prudence Crandall saw in northeastern Connecticut were former slaves. Farmers in her hometown of Canterbury owned slaves through the end of the 1700s. Throughout the eighteenth century, slave ships regularly brought captured blacks from Africa to harbors in the Northeast, including ports in Connecticut and Newport, Rhode Island. Newport was one of the busiest slave-trading ports in America during the 1700s; slaves were held in pens on the Newport waterfront until they could be sold and transported throughout New England. There were 951 slaves in Connecticut according to the national census of 1800. By the time Prudence Crandall began her teaching career in 1830, the number had dropped to twenty-five as a result of anti-slavery sentiment and legislation that slowly phased out slavery in Connecticut.
It wasn’t just whites who owned slaves in early America. From 1654 right through the Civil War, free black people owned fellow blacks in every one of the 13 original states and later in almost every other state as well. As late as 1830, according to Harvard historian Henry Louis Gates, 3,776 free American blacks owned 12,907 slaves.
The slave trade was still legal in America when Prudence Crandall was born in 1803. The Constitution’s provision to outlaw it didn’t take effect until 1807, and it would be six decades more before the stain of slavery would be expunged from the land.
Growing up in a Quaker home, Crandall was steeped in the values of peace, tolerance, and goodwill. They were reinforced when she attended a Quaker boarding school in Providence, Rhode Island, founded by noted abolitionist Moses Brown. Friends and family claimed she was a born teacher, devoted to cultivating young minds through excellence in the classroom. Her dream was to teach in a school of her own.
The year that Crandall opened her first school, 1831, saw two momentous events in the history of slavery in the 19th century. It was the year of the biggest slave uprising, the Nat Turner rebellion, which claimed the lives of dozens of whites and blacks and sparked a new level of race-based fear and bigotry. And it was the year that fiery abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison began publishing his famous newspaper, the Liberator. Garrison stirred passions on both sides of the slavery question with this declaration in his first issue:
I am aware that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity? I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation. No! No! Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen — but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest — I will not equivocate — I will not excuse — I will not retreat a single inch — and I will be heard. The apathy of the people is enough to make every statue leap from its pedestal, and to hasten the resurrection of the dead.
Only white girls enrolled at Crandall’s Canterbury Female Boarding School in its first year. But in the second, a very bright black girl named Sarah Harris approached Crandall and expressed interest in attending. Harris, the daughter of free black parents in Canterbury, was a young lady of solid reputation in the community. She wanted to be a teacher herself someday and was, in Crandall’s own words, “correct in her deportment … pleasing in her personal appearance and manners.”
Concerned that a white backlash might ensue and endanger the school’s financial survival, Crandall hesitated at first before deciding that rejecting Sarah (whose parents offered to pay full tuition) would be an unconscionable insult to her own values. “I told her if I was injured on her account I would bear it,” Crandall later said. Sarah Harris became the first black student in the first integrated school of any kind — public or private — in all the United States. Crandall explained the decision this way:
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? I contemplated for a while the manner in which I might best serve the people of color. As wealth was not mine, I saw no other means of benefiting them than by imparting to those of my own sex that were anxious to learn all the instruction I might be able to give, however small the amount.
Local reaction to the news of Sarah’s enrollment in the fall of 1832 was swift and fierce. Overnight, Prudence Crandall was transformed from hero to villain. Ugly rumors spread that her real goal was to stoke conflict and even foster — heaven forbid — interracial marriage! Local business and political leaders visited Crandall to insist that Sarah be expelled. Parents of the white students began withdrawing their daughters or threatening to do so if Sarah didn’t disappear.
Less determined or more timid people in Crandall’s shoes might have folded. After all, she had put all of her hopes as well as her savings into the school. Why risk failure and opprobrium over a single student when, with a simple dismissal, all would be well again?
The fools of Canterbury underestimated Prudence Crandall. Not only did she not cave in; she came up with a revolutionary idea. “Under the circumstances,” she declared, “I made up my mind that, if it were possible, I would teach colored girls exclusively.” Over at the Liberator in Boston, Garrison offered his full support and promised to help recruit free black students from every New England state if that’s what it would take to make the Crandall school a success. For the sum of $25 per quarter, half paid in advance, black female students would have a school of their own where they could get a first-class education.
The remaining white students were heartbroken when Crandall tearfully informed them they would be dismissed before the school for black girls opened on April 1, 1833. It was likely only a matter of time, she reckoned, before their parents would withdraw them anyway. For Crandall, there was no other way to keep the institution financially viable. It was also a bold statement against racial prejudice. Her courage, combined with the subsequent action of the Connecticut legislature and the publicity that Garrison’s attention gave her, made Prudence Crandall a household name from Maine to Georgia.
Six weeks after that fateful April 1, the Connecticut General Assembly passed the infamous “Black Law,” which made it illegal for out-of-state black students to attend any Connecticut school without the permission of local town authorities. At least 20 were already enrolled at the Crandall school, most of them from other New England states.
All but a handful of her friends deserted Crandall. Local vendors wouldn’t do business with her. The threats mounted in number and intensity, but her resolve to press on only strengthened. No mere law would shut her school, she defiantly declared.
The students themselves were subjected to abuse by hostile townspeople. Stagecoach drivers refused to provide them with transportation. None of the doctors in town would provide necessary medical attention. After somebody poisoned the school’s well, others prevented Crandall from obtaining water elsewhere. She hauled it in herself from her father’s farm. When the girls went outside, they were often met with angry epithets from egg- and stone-throwing hooligans of all ages. One 17-year-old student, Anna Eliza Hammond, was even arrested, but with the help of donations from abolitionists, she was released upon posting $10,000 bond.
On August 23, 1833, Prudence Crandall herself was arrested for violating the Black Law. After a night in jail, she soon appeared in court, where she benefited greatly from good lawyers financed by the Boston businessman, philanthropist, and abolitionist Arthur Tappan.
Crandall’s legal defense rested on the argument that free blacks from other states were US citizens and, as such, were entitled to the same rights as all citizens. If they chose to attend a private school, with their own money, there was nothing the state of Connecticut could constitutionally do to deny them that right.
The first of three trials ended with a hung jury. The second found Crandall guilty when the judge upheld the Black Law because, in his view, blacks were not citizens and, by virtue of their skin color, were not guaranteed any constitutional rights. On appeal to Connecticut’s highest court, the lower court’s decision was overturned on a minor procedural issue.
While the decision in the third case would have allowed the school to go on, the behavior of many Canterbury residents was too much for Crandall and her students to take. A mob broke into the school and damaged windows and furniture. Constant threats to assault the students and to burn the school to the ground (it was set on fire at least once) forced a painful decision. The one thing that Crandall could not countenance was the thought of harm to her students. On September 10, 1834, she closed the school and left the state with her new husband, Baptist preacher Calvin Philleo.
In the years that followed, Prudence Crandall lived in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, and Illinois before finally settling in Kansas, where she died in 1890 at the age of 86. Though Connecticut repealed the Black Law in 1838, she would never reside there again.
Four years before her death, and at the urging of Mark Twain and others, the Connecticut legislature voted to send her a pension of $400 per year, or about $11,000 in today’s dollars. The mansion she bought and turned into a school almost 200 years ago is still there in Canterbury, now the home of the Prudence Crandall Museum. In 1995, Connecticut legislators officially designated her the state heroine.
In Kansas, Crandall was sought after as a historic figure. Interviewed in her tiny 8- by 12-foot cabin, she told a Topeka newspaper reporter in 1885,
I like Kansas very much. My humble dwelling is situated in one of the most beautiful spots on earth. The aspirations of my soul to benefit the colored race were never greater than at the present time. I hope to live long enough to see a college built on this farm, into which can be admitted all the classes of the human family, without regard to sex or color … I want professorships of the highest order.… You see that my wants are so many, and so great, that I have no time to waste, no time to spend in grief.
The Prudence Crandall case was neither the first nor the last time that government attempted to thwart education, and race is only one of many excuses authorities have used to hamper or shut down schools they didn’t like.
Consider the case of private Cordell College in Oklahoma. In 1917, Cordell was a small Christian college known for its strong pacifist views. When President Woodrow Wilson drafted men to fight in World War I, the school made it clear that they could not participate in anything other than a supportive role.
Unsatisfied with this position, the local Selective Service board ordered the removal of pacifist administrators, faculty, and board members, and it ordered the appointment of others that could support the war effort unreservedly. Standing on principle, the president, J.N. Armstrong, refused to comply, resigned, and closed the school. Later, most of the staff relocated to another college in Kansas before that school relocated to Arkansas and eventually became Harding University, where a good friend of mine, Professor David Kee, teaches today. Kee writes,
This matter is exemplary of the overreach of government all the way to the local level, disrespectful of individual views and disrupting [of] the economic life of an entire town. Liberty should include the freedom to not fight wars — even those promulgating the defense of liberties. Thankfully, there are individuals such as J.N. Armstrong, who are willing to stand for the values they hold dear.
How would children learn without government? That’s a perennial question asked by many who assume, mistakenly, that government is an indispensable necessity to the business of education. Prudence Crandall in her day and J.N. Armstrong in his would undoubtedly respond with another query: “How will children get an education with government?”
For additional information, see:
- Donald E. Williams Jr.’s biography, Prudence Crandall’s Legacy: The Fight for Equality in the 1830s, Dred Scott, and Brown v. Board of Education
- Suzanne Jurmain’s The Forbidden Schoolhouse: The True and Dramatic Story of Prudence Crandall and Her Students
- Susan Fleming’s Bold Venture: Prudence Crandall and Her Fight to Educate Young Black Women
- “Did Black People Own Slaves?” by Henry Louis Gates Jr.