Prudence Crandall was an American schoolteacher and activist who founded the Canterbury Female Boarding School in Canterbury, Connecticut, in 1831, sparking a chain of events that challenged the norms of her time.
Prudence Crandall was born on September 3, 1803, in Hopkinton, Rhode Island. She was raised in a devout Quaker family, which instilled in her strong beliefs in equality and justice. Her upbringing encouraged her to become an educator, and in 1831, she opened a private school in Canterbury, Connecticut at the request of Canterbury residents to educate young girls in the town.
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. Subjects taught at the school ranged from reading, writing, and arithmetic to more advanced topics like chemistry, astronomy, and moral philosophy.
The turning point in Prudence Crandall’s life came in 1832 when Sarah Harris, the daughter of a free African American farmer from near Canterbury, expressed her desire to be admitted to the school to prepare for teaching other African Americans. Crandall, guided by her principles and inspired by abolitionist newspapers like The Liberator, accepted Harris as a student, making her the first African American student at the school.
The decision to admit Sarah Harris marked the beginning of a controversy that would rock the community.
The town’s residents found the idea of integrated education unacceptable, and the school immediately lost the support of the townspeople. Many parents removed their daughters from the school, and the town’s elite residents protested vehemently against Prudence Crandall’s actions.
In order to keep her school running, Crandall transformed the school into one for “young Ladies and little Misses of color.”. To support her endeavor, Crandall sought guidance from prominent abolitionists like Samuel J. May and William Lloyd Garrison, who encouraged her mission. She temporarily closed the school and began recruiting new students of color. With the help of Garrison, advertisements for new pupils were published in The Liberator, drawing African American families from various cities.
In 1833, 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.
Candace school for “young Ladies and little Misses of color” encountered intense opposition from the town’s leading figures, particularly Andrew Judson, a prominent lawyer and politician in Canterbury who was a member of the American Colonization Society. He and others believed that the presence of the school would promote “social equality and intermarriage of whites and blacks.”
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“
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.
Under the Black Law, the townspeople went to great lengths to ostracize the students and Crandall, denying them access to essential services and even poisoning the school’s well. Stage drivers refused to transport the students, doctors refused treatment, and the entire community was determined to make life unbearable for Crandall and her students.
Despite the immense pressure, Prudence Crandall remained steadfast in her commitment to educating African American girls. She faced arrest, endured court trials, and spent a night in jail. When legal measures failed to close the school, the opposition turned to violence. In 1834, a mob broke into the school, terrorizing the students and vandalizing the property. Fearing for the safety of her students, Crandall made the painful decision to close the school and leave Connecticut for good.
After leaving Canterbury, Prudence Crandall married and continued her involvement in the women’s suffrage movement.
In 1886, the state of Connecticut honored Prudence Crandall with an act by the legislature, providing her with a $400 annual pension that continued until her passing in 1890.
Today, the Prudence Crandall Museum stands 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.