“She was a slender young woman, with bright blue eyes, soft blond hair, and a special way of speaking, quiet, controlled –, ‘lady-like,’ as people said in the early part of the 1800’s, — but firm as granite.”
It was 1831 when Prudence Crandall opened a private school for young white girls in Canterbury, Connecticut. She called it the Canterbury Female Boarding School. She opened the school at the request of the town’s wealthy residents to teach their daughters.
The school became prominent for having a rigorous curriculum that was comparable to the education at elite schools for boys. But about a year after opening, Prudence admitted Sarah Harris, a 17 year old black girl who was a friend of Prudence’s housekeeper. Sarah wanted to learn so that she could become a teacher.
The white families were outraged. They urged Prudence to expel Sarah.
Prudence refused to. “The school may fail, but I will not give up Sarah Harris,” she said.
So the families of the white students removed their children from the school. Undeterred, Prudence continued to operate, turning her school into one for black girls.
A local abolitionist helped Prudence advertise her school and on April 1, 1833, twenty black girls from Boston, Providence, New York Philadelphia and Connecticut started their first day at Miss Crandall’s School for Young Ladies and Little Misses of Color.
There was backlash from Canterbury residents. They protested the school. They taunted the students, threatened them, some even threw eggs and manure at the young girls. A committee of four prominent white men tried to convince Prudence her school was detrimental to the safety of the white people in town.
Less than two months after her school opened, the Connecticut legislature passed the “Black Law”, which said that a town had to permit the teaching of black students from outside of the state. Since the town did not give Prudence a permit to teach, she was arrested and jailed for one night and released under bond to await trial.
And still Prudence continued to teach the young women.
Not all were against Prudence and her school however. A number of abolitionists got involved. One donated $10,000 to hire the best lawyers for Prudence.
Her first trial ended in a hung jury. The second in her conviction, which was then overturned by the Supreme Court of Errors (the Connecticut Supreme Court today).
The townspeople, furious at the dismissal, broke ninety windows and some furniture in the school. And so for the safety of the students and her family and herself, Prudence closed the school on September 10th, 1834, the day after the windows were smashed. Then she and her husband moved out of the town.
Decades later, Connecticut honored Prudence with an act of legislature to provide her an annual pension.
“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.” — Prudence Crandall