Prudence Crandall and the Canterbury Female Boarding School
In the fall of 1831, the residents of Canterbury, Connecticut, approached 27-year-old Prudence Crandall about opening a private school for young women in their community. Crandall accepted the invitation and paid $500 as a down payment to purchase the recently vacated Paine mansion located on the town's green. Having been educated at the Friends' Boarding School in Providence, Rhode Island, and having taught at local district schools, Crandall came to the position with a fine reputation as a teacher. The Crandall family, Quakers from Rhode Island, moved to south Canterbury when Prudence was young.
The Canterbury Female Boarding School enjoyed the complete support of the community and was soon a success. Subjects taught included reading, writing, arithmetic, English grammar, geography, history, chemistry, astronomy, and moral philosophy. Basic tuition and room and board cost $25 per quarter. Students paid extra fees for instruction in drawing, painting, music, and French. With student tuition, Crandall was able to pay off the $1500 mortgage within a year.
At the time Crandall opened her school in Connecticut, white and African-American children received a free elementary education at the district schools. No further public or private education was made available to black children. Crandall became aware of the injustices to African Americans in Connecticut and elsewhere through her housekeeper Marcia Davis, and Marcia's friend Sarah Harris, both African Americans. Sarah's father was the local distributor of the abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator. Marcia sometimes would leave copies of the newspaper where Crandall would find them.
In the fall of 1832, Sarah Harris asked Prudence Crandall to admit her to the Canterbury Boarding School. Originally from Norwich, Connecticut, a town traditionally having a larger population of African-American families, Harris hoped the education Crandall's academy offered could help her achieve her goal of returning to Norwich as a teacher. Crandall agreed to let Sarah attend the school as a day student. She immediately lost the support of the townspeople. A number of Canterbury's leading gentlemen, including the secretary of Crandall's Board of Visitors, supported the colonizationist movement, which feared the integration of the races and proposed sending all African Americans in America to Africa. This issue was being passionately debated at the time Crandall admitted Sarah Harris to her school.
Parents threatened to withdraw their daughters if Harris remained in the school. Crandall soon realized she must find some alternative to keep the school open. In the spring of 1833, she traveled to Boston to meet with William Lloyd Garrison, publisher of The Liberator. They discussed the possibility of closing the academy to white students and reopening with an African-American student body. With Garrison's assistance she traveled throughout New England to meet with upper-middle class families who might be willing to send their daughters to the school. She soon realized this idea could be successful. Newspaper advertisements were placed announcing that as of April 1, 1833, the academy would reopen for the purpose of educating "young ladies and little misses of color." According to Crandall, "the sole object, at this school [was] to instruct the ignorant and prepare teachers for the people of color that they may be elevated and their intellectual and moral wants supplied."1 A delegation of town leaders urged her to abandon the project and led a general boycott of the school when Crandall refused.
Although the school opened with only three students, Crandall 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. Both Crandall and her students endured harassment from angry townspeople. Shopkeepers refused to sell them food and townspeople pelted the building with stones and eggs. Under the shield of darkness, the school's opponents even attempted to set the building on fire in January 1834. Crandall's Quaker upbringing contributed to her moral convictions and her decision not to bend to public pressure. The Quakers strongly opposed slavery and promoted education for women and minorities. Crandall herself believed in the cause of immediate abolition.
So determined and influential were Crandall's opponents that, on May 24, 1833, the Connecticut General Assembly enacted a measure known as the Black Law. This act restricted African Americans from coming into Connecticut to get an education and prohibited anyone from opening a school to educate African Americans from outside the state without getting the town's permission. The law did not prevent African Americans that were residents of Connecticut from going to district schools. 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.
Map of Canterbury, Connecticut
Crandall spent one night in jail for violating the Black Law. At her trial on August 23, 1833, the jury failed to reach a verdict. The case went to a second trial in October 1833, where she was found guilty. Judge David Daggett told the jury, "It would be a perversion of terms, and the well-known rule of construction to say that slaves, free blacks or Indians, were citizens within the meaning of that term, as used in the Constitution. God forbid that I should add to the degradation of this race of men; but I am bound by my duty, to say they are not citizens." According to this argument, the Constitution did not entitle African Americans to the freedom of education. Crandall 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. When supporters visited the school, Crandall's students performed a song for them, revealing their fear and sorrow:
Sometimes when we have walked the streets
Saluted we have been
By guns and drums and cow bells, too
And horns of polished tin.
With warnings, threats, and words severe
They visit us at times
And gladly would they send us off
To Africa's burning climes.2
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.
On July 26, 1834, the Connecticut Supreme Court of Errors dismissed the case against Crandall on a technical issue. The lower court decision that African Americans were not protected as citizens, however, remained standing. Although Crandall had won a technical legal victory and was free to return to her school, the townspeople of Canterbury would not accept the Supreme Court's decision. On the night of September 9, 1834, an angry mob broke in and ransacked the school building. With clubs and iron bars, the mob terrorized the students and broke more than 90 windows. What the Black Law and local ostracism had not been able to accomplish, this mob achieved. Fearing for the girls' safety, Crandall closed the school the following morning.
The Brooklyn Town Hall was originally built in 1820 to serve as the Windham County Courthouse. The Prudence Crandall trial was held here on August 23, 1833. Crandall was in violation of the “Black Law” for running a school for African American students, but she pleaded “not guilty” in a stand against bigotry and discrimination. After purposely refusing to post bail to avoid being jailed before her trial, Crandall spent a night in a jail cell in the basement of the Courthouse. A daughter of abolitionist George Benson volunteered to stay with her.
In 1834 Prudence Crandall married Calvin Philleo. They left their home in Canterbury shortly after the school closed. Her courage and persistence continued to win her national attention in abolitionist circles. She spoke and was entertained at banquets sponsored by abolitionists and African-American societies. In 1848 she moved to Illinois where she farmed land owned by her father and taught school. In 1877 she moved to Elk Falls, Kansas, where she started a school that served American Indians. In 1883, Mark Twain, a resident of Hartford, Connecticut, helped obtain a pension for Prudence Crandall from the Connecticut Assembly. He also offered to buy her former home in Canterbury for her retirement, but Crandall kindly declined the offer. She died in Elk Falls in 1890 at the age of 87.