Prudence Crandall’s designation in 1995 as Connecticut’s State Heroine reflects her courageous and unwavering commitment to abolitionism and education reform in the school she maintained for “Young Ladies of Color” in Canterbury—the first academy in New England for African-American women.
Born into a Quaker family in 1803 in Hopkinton, R.I., Prudence Crandall moved to Connecticut at the age of 17 with her parents, Pardon and Esther Carpenter Crandall, and siblings. After attending a boarding school in Providence, R.I., and teaching for a short time at a girls’ school in Canterbury, she purchased the Canterbury Female Boarding School in 1831. One year later, Crandall would become a symbol in the cause of African-American education and abolitionism when she admitted Sarah Harris (1815-1879), the daughter of a prosperous African-American farmer, who had completed the district school and wished to be trained as a teacher. Angry community residents demanded that Harris be removed, but Crandall refused to comply and instead simply stopped teaching white girls.
In 1833, she established a school dedicated exclusively to the teaching of African-American girls. Crandall began to recruit pupils among middle class African-American families throughout the Northeast for the first boarding and teacher-training school for young black women. Among her supporters was William Lloyd Garrison, who published advertisements for the school in his abolitionist newspaper The Liberator. In her advertisements, Crandall announced that in April 1833 she would open a school “for the reception of young ladies and little misses of color, ... Terms, $25 per quarter, one half paid in advance.” She taught a full curriculum including reading, writing, arithmetic, grammar, geography, history, philosophy, chemistry, astronomy, painting, music, piano and French.
Crandall’s steadfast commitment to the education of these young women was immediately tested by withering opposition from Connecticut residents who refused to tolerate a school for young women of color. Despite this hateful reaction, she continued to operate the school. Finally, the state of Connecticut passed the “Black Law,” which barred the teaching of “any colored people...not inhabitants” of Connecticut without a town’s permission. Crandall was arrested, spent a night in jail, and faced three trials as her case became a cause célèbre throughout the country. While awaiting trial, she continued to operate her school despite threats of violence and denials of service on the part of the townspeople of Canterbury and even despite the poisoning of the school’s drinking water well. Her continued defiance drew sharp criticism not only from local citizens but also from politicians, religious leaders and others from across the state. State Senator Andrew T. Judson, who spearheaded the passage of the “Black Law,” even went so far as to state, “...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 can never rise from their menial condition in our country.”
Her first trial resulted in no verdict, but in the second she was convicted. A third trial, an appeal before Connecticut’s Supreme Court, overturned the conviction and dismissed the case altogether. Arguments from her trials were later used in Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court's landmark school desegregation decision of 1954.
Connecticut repealed the “Black Law” in 1838, but Crandall had already left the state. Despite the dismissal of the case, townspeople in Canterbury continued to vandalize Crandall’s school. Following a mob assault two months after the case dismissal, she was forced to close the school. She and her husband, the Reverend Calvin Phillio, moved to Illinois. She did not, however, abandon her commitment to education. There she opened a school in her home and continued to work to further the rights of women.
Crandall continued her interest in the reform movement throughout the rest of her life. At the urging of Mark Twain and others, the Connecticut Legislature did penance for its earlier prosecution of Crandall by granting her a small pension in 1886. Prudence Crandall died in Elk Falls, Kan., in 1890, leaving behind a legacy of equal education and the fight for reform. The Prudence Crandall Museum in Canterbury, Conn., celebrates this legacy and is a site on both the Connecticut Women’s Heritage Trail and the Connecticut Freedom Trail.
During This Time
1800 - 1920: Industrialization & Reform
When the Declaration of Independence announced that all men are created equal, the path to citizenship for both blacks and women had begun. Despite not having the right to vote, women had long petitioned governors and legislatures to articulate a family grievance. Activist women presented to the U.S. Congress a large-scale innovative petition on behalf of abolition. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, is widely credited with stirring public opinion, especially among women, to anti-slavery sentiments. Helped by women’s efforts, abolitionists eventually secured their goal in the three post-Civil War amendments.
Work in activities such as anti-slavery, temperance and moral reform led some middle-class women to the cause of women’s rights. They challenged the ideal of “separate spheres,” insisting on the same rights to life, liberty, property, and happiness as men. Through Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s lobbying, New York gave women control over their property, wages, and children. In 1848, Stanton and others met in Seneca Falls to discuss the “repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman.” The resulting Declaration of Sentiments asserted that “woman is man’s equal.”
The early industrial economy had changed women’s lives. Textile production shifted from home to factory towns where farm daughters hoped wage labor would open new opportunities. Arrangements seemed ideal, until declining profits caused owners to slash wages to reduce costs. Lowell women walked out in 1836, and later petitioned the legislature to investigate deteriorating conditions. The labor force also changed as more immigrants arrived, delegated to poorly paid factory and domestic work.
In the Progressive Era, some benevolent women were committed to helping working-class women, and their needs received increased publicity after the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire in 1911. Others addressed civic concerns, established settlement houses, worked for protective labor legislation, and tried to ban child labor. Clerical work in offices opened up as a desirable field for women, and some gained greater entry into various professions, including medicine, law, social work, nursing, and teaching.
Determined suffragists persisted in their political protests even after World War I broke out in 1914. Finally, seventy-two years after the Seneca Falls convention, employing new tactics and strategies, and a long, hard struggle at the state and national levels, the elusive goal was reached. The 19th amendment, proposed by Congress and ratified by the states in 1920, prohibited restrictions on the right to vote based on sex. It was one of the most successful mass movements in the expansion of political democracy in American history.
An important expression of feminism (calling for change in women’s private lives, not in their public roles) was the campaign in favor of access to birth control. Nurse Margaret Sanger spoke and wrote on its behalf, though her mailings were judged as violating the anti-obscenity Comstock laws. In 1916, after opening the first birth control clinic in the country, she was arrested and sentenced briefly to jail. For forty years she promoted contraception as an alternative to abortion, foreshadowing Planned Parenthood.
Special thanks to Barbara E. Lacey, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of History, St. Joseph's College (Hartford, CT) for preparing these historical summaries.