Prudence Crandall

Prudence Crandall
"I said in my heart, here are my convictions. What shall I do? Shall I be inactive and permit prejudice, the mother of abominations, to remain undisturbed? Or shall I venture to enlist in the ranks of those who with the Sword of Truth dare hold combat with prevailing iniquity? I contemplated for a while the manner in which I might best serve the people of color. As wealth was not mine, I saw no other means of benefiting them, than by imparting to those of my own sex that were anxious to learn, all the instruction I might be able to give, however small the amount."
- Prudence Crandall, 1833

Induction Category:
Education & Preservation

Born: 1803

Died: 1890

Inducted: 1994

Town: Canterbury

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