In 1831, the small town of Canterbury, Connecticut, embarked on a progressive endeavor when they invited Prudence Crandall, a well-educated teacher, to establish a school for girls in their community. Little did they know that this school, the Canterbury Female Boarding School, would become a symbol of resistance against racial discrimination, ultimately leading to its tragic destruction by a mob in 1834.
The Canterbury Female Boarding School opened its doors in November 1831 and quickly gained the support of the local community. With an initial enrollment of 24 white students, the school quickly gained community support and seemed poised for success. Subjects taught at the school ranged from reading, writing, and arithmetic to more advanced topics like chemistry, astronomy, and moral philosophy.
The defining moment of the school’s history came in 1832 when Prudence Crandall admitted Sarah Harris, an African American girl, and the sister of a local abolitionist. However, this step towards integration was met with swift and vehement opposition from both the community and parents of white students.
The town’s residents found the idea of integrated education unacceptable, and the school immediately lost the support of the townspeople, which it had enjoyed, and parents began to withdraw their daughters. In order for the school to survive while keeping Sarah as a student, Crandall transformed the school into one for “young Ladies and little Misses of color.”, However, this change only fueled the tensions.
Under the influence of Judson, a colonizationist whose position was that free blacks should leave the United States and go to Africa. The racist townspeople believed that Canterbury would become the center of a vast colony of free blacks, and that alone would be a threat to the very survival of the United States.
Prudence proposed moving the school, but this wasn’t enough. Judson, who was a life member of the American Colonization Society, had this to say.
“We are not merely opposed to the establishment of that school in Canterbury; we mean there shall not be such a school set up anywhere in our State. The colored people never can rise from their menial condition in our country; they ought not to be permitted to rise here. They are an inferior race of beings, and never can or ought to be recognized as the equals of the whites. Africa is the place for them. I am in favor of the Colonization scheme. Let the niggers and their descendants be sent back to their fatherland“
Despite the warnings and criticism, Prudence forged ahead with unwavering determination and a resolute spirit.
The school reopened as planned, welcoming approximately ten to twelve well-mannered young African American girls from some of the most esteemed families. As time passed, enrollment grew swiftly to reach 24 students, with pupils joining from as far as Philadelphia, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island.
As news of the African-American girls’ school spread, Connecticut took action by passing the infamous “Black Law.” This legislation forbade Black and Brown individuals from out of state from attending schools in Connecticut towns without local town approval. However, undeterred by the legal challenges, Crandall continued her mission, maintaining the school as a sanctuary for Black and Brown students pursuing education and opportunities. As a result of her defiance of the law, she faced arrest, spent a night in jail, and endured three court trials.
When legal measures failed to extinguish the school’s mission, the opposition turned to violence. In a horrifying act, a mob armed with heavy clubs and iron bars broke into the school on September 9, 1834. The students were terrorized, the property was vandalized, and the situation became untenable. Fearing for the safety of her students, Prudence Crandall reluctantly made the painful decision to close the school and leave Connecticut for good.
Today, the legacy of the Canterbury Female Boarding School lives on through the Prudence Crandall Museum. The museum stands proudly as a National Historic Landmark in Canterbury, Connecticut, preserving the memory of Prudence Crandall and her students who dared to challenge the norms of their time.