In 1831, Prudence Crandall, with the support and approval of the local citizenry, opened the Canterbury Female Boarding School to educate daughters of wealthy Eastern Connecticut families. After a successful inaugural year, Crandall received a request from 20-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, 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 from her neighbors, who promptly removed both their white daughters and financial support from Crandall’s school, essentially forcing it to close.
Instead of capitulating and denying her prospective student of color admission, Crandall doubled down on her commitment to equal access to female education. She announced that the next school year she would reopen her school, but as an institution exclusively for “little misses of color.” William Lloyd Garrison, who supported Crandall’s decision, 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 new boarding school.
Meanwhile, however, the now angry Canterbury residents, who had once supported Crandall, agitated for a change in state law that would prevent her from opening her school. In response, the state legislature passed a new “Black Law” in May 1833 expressly forbidding out-of-state black children from attending school in any 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. This in turn led to several trials, convictions, and appeals. Ultimately, Crandall’s case was dismissed on a technicality, and she refocused her efforts on the African-American girls’ school.
That was not the end of the story. Crandall and her students continued to receive harassment on a daily basis, enduring taunts, threats, and even the risk of physical harm as hecklers shouted and threw stones at them. After an angry mob directly attacked the boarding school at night in September 1834, smashing windows and furniture while Crandall and her students hid in terror, Crandall finally decided to close her school. She feared, she said, for her students’ safety if she continued to keep it going.
Crandall soon moved out of Connecticut with her new husband, Calvin Philleo. She continued, albeit from a distance, to advocate for access to education for students of color. Many years later, long after the Civil War, Connecticut came to regret the way it had treated Crandall and passed a law giving her a $400 annual pension. Four years later, in 1890, Crandall died in Kansas.
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