In 1831, Prudence Crandall opened the Canterbury Female Boarding School in Canterbury, Connecticut, in order to provide an education to wealthy daughters of Eastern Connecticut families. After a successful inaugural year, Crandall received a request from twenty-year-old Sarah Harris, the daughter of a prosperous free African-American farmer and his wife, to attend the boarding school.
Crandall, a single, 29-year-old Quaker woman who was an avid reader of William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist newspaper The Liberator, decided to accept Miss Harris into her school. This prompted a severe and instantaneous backlash among her neighbors, who promptly removed their white daughters and financial support from Crandall’s school, essentially forcing it to close. Instead of capitulating, however, Prudence Crandall doubled down on her commitment to equal access to female education and announced she would be opening a school exclusively for “little misses of color” the following year. William Lloyd Garrison ran advertisements for Crandall’s school in The Liberator which garnered national attention. By the start of the school year in 1833, Crandall had no shortage of well-to-do black girls eager to journey to Connecticut to attend her boarding school.
Meanwhile, however, angry Canterbury residents agitated for a change in state law to prevent Crandall’s school from becoming a reality. In May of 1833, the state legislature passed a new “Black Law” that expressly forbade out-of-state black children from attending school in a Connecticut town without first obtaining permission from local authorities.
One month later, on June 27, 1833, Prudence Crandall was arrested after she refused to close her school for young ladies of color. After weathering several trials and appeals, Crandall’s case was dismissed on a technicality, and she returned to her school. However, she and her students continued to receive harassment on a daily basis, enduring taunts, threats, and even risking physical harm as hecklers shouted and threw stones at them. After an angry mob attacked the boarding school in September 1834, smashing windows and furniture while Crandall and her students hid in terror, Crandall finally decided to close her school for fear of her students’ safety. She soon moved out of Connecticut with her new husband, Calvin Philleo, and continued to advocate for education access for students of color.
Today, Prudence Crandall’s Canterbury home is a historic house museum owned and operated by the state of Connecticut. In 1995, she was designated Connecticut’s official State Heroine, and a statue of her and student Sarah Harris was unveiled in the State Capitol in 2008.
Diana Moraco, “Prudence Crandall Fights for Equal Access to Education,” connecticuthistory.org
“Prudence Crandall,” Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame