Crandall, Prudence (1803–1890)

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Crandall, Prudence (1803–1890)

Anti-slavery educator whose attempt to open a boarding school for African-American girls in Connecticut grew into one of the great race controversies of the antebellum era. Pronunciation: CRAN-del. Born Prudence Crandall on September 3, 1803, in Hopkinton, Rhode Island; died of influenza in Elk Falls, Kansas, on January 28, 1890; buried in Elk Falls; daughter of farmer Pardon Crandall and Esther (Carpenter) Crandall; attended New England Friends Boarding School in Providence, Rhode Island, 1825–26, 1827–30; married Calvin Philleo (a Baptist minister), on August 19, 1834.

Taught school in Plainfield, Connecticut (1830–31); appointed principal, Canterbury Female Boarding School (1831–32); appointed principal, High School for Young Colored Ladies and Misses in Canterbury (1833–34); tried under Connecticut's notorious "Black Law" (1834), won on appeal; moved to Ithaca, New York (1834); moved to Troy Grove Township, La Salle County, Illinois (1842); moved to Cordova, Illinois (1865); moved to Elk Falls, Kansas (1874); voted a pension of $400 by Connecticut Legislature (1886).

A year after Prudence Crandall opened an exclusive female boarding school in Canterbury, Connecticut, she received a visitor who asked for a substantial "favor." Sarah Harris , the teenage daughter of a local black farmer, told Crandall that she wanted "to get a little more learning, enough if possible to teach colored children, and if you will admit me to your school, I shall forever be under the greatest obligation to you." Crandall knew that she risked criticism within the community if she admitted Harris to her school, but, certain that the white girls already in attendance would welcome the school's first black student, she approved her entrance. In January 1833, the Canterbury Female Boarding School thus became an integrated institution, an event that exploded into one of the great race controversies of the antebellum era.

Prudence Crandall was born on a farm in Hopkinton, Rhode Island, in 1803, the second of four children and oldest daughter of Pardon and Esther (Carpenter) Crandall . Raised in a Quaker family, Prudence attended the New England Friends Boarding School in Providence during the late 1820s. Her parents would move to Canterbury in Windham County, and, in 1830, Crandall began teaching in nearby Plainfield, Connecticut. In 1831, community leaders in Canterbury asked her to open a "genteel female seminary for the young ladies of the village." Advanced educational opportunities were very limited for American women during this period. Older girls were often unwelcome in public schools, as was the case in Canterbury. The opening of boarding schools for young women represented a rather new, though growing, phenomenon that would ultimately lead to a dramatic increase in the number of women who received a serious education. The Canterbury Female Boarding School, which was housed in a large home in the center of town, quickly became one of the most respected in Connecticut after its opening in November 1831.

As was common for unmarried women, Crandall continued to live with her parents, though she was 27 when she founded the boarding school. At this time, the Crandall's Canterbury household included a black servant, Marcia , who shared with Crandall copies of William Lloyd Garrison's new publication, The Liberator. Impressed by Garrison's uncompromising demand for an immediate end to slavery and his belief in racial equality, Crandall resolved to "serve the people of color." She would soon get her chance. Marcia's fiancée was Charles Harris, the son of a successful and respected African-American farmer, William Harris. Charles' younger sister, Sarah, had gone to district school with white children, but had no opportunity to further her education. Thus Sarah approached Crandall about attending the Canterbury Female Boarding School.

I have put my hand to the plough and will never no never look back.

—Prudence Crandall

Some of the girls in attendance knew Sarah as a former classmate, and thus no student voiced any opposition to her enrollment. So in January 1833, she began her studies there. Many leading members of the community, however, immediately began to complain and threatened to withdraw their children from the school. Prudence Crandall, for her part, refused to back down, so most disgruntled parents removed their daughters. Forced to confront the issue of racial injustice directly for the first time in her life, Crandall chose to follow a dramatic and courageous course. On January 18, she wrote to Garrison, explaining her new found determination to "change white scholars for colored ones" and open a school for black girls. Garrison embraced the idea, and the great battle was on.

Crandall traveled to Boston, Providence, New York, and Philadelphia to recruit students whose parents could afford the $25 per quarter tuition and board. After this successful trip, she returned to Connecticut to complete plans for transforming her school. On February 20, 1833, she dismissed the white pupils who remained at her institution. But before she could get the new "High School for Young Colored Ladies and Misses" started, extensive organized opposition began to crystallize in Canterbury.

After a town meeting, a committee of "the most powerful men" in the town visited Crandall. They expressed a fear that the opening of the school would lead to interracial marriages and injure property values. Crandall, however, would not yield to pressure to abandon her plan. Instead, on March 2, The Liberator carried an advertisement for the new institution, noting that classes would begin April 1. On March 9, a huge public meeting took place in Canterbury where two resolutions were passed, one stating that "the inhabitants of Canterbury protest against [the opening of the school] in the most earnest manner," while the other called on Crandall "to abandon the project." Fiery speeches followed, including one by lawyer and prominent Democratic politician Andrew T. Judson, who lived next door to the boarding school. Judson was a leader of the local branch of the American Colonization Society, which advocated sending free blacks to Liberia in Africa. The man who would come to lead the fight against the school claimed that Prudence Crandall was a part of a radical anti-slavery conspiracy that would turn New England into the "Liberia of America," and he promised legal action to stop the venture. His pledge met with wild applause.

As a woman, Prudence Crandall was not allowed to attend the town meeting. Therefore, she designated Reverend Samuel T. May of nearby Brooklyn (a close friend of Garrison's who became Crandall's most loyal and effective supporter) and Arnold Buffum, New England Anti-Slavery Society agent, to represent her. But led by Judson, the crowd, threatening violence, refused to let them speak, an action that The Liberator would later condemn under the heading "Heathenism Outdone." Garrison placed the names of the principal antagonists in bold black letters to signify the dark crime against humanity their intolerance had brought to Canterbury.

Faced with fanatical opposition, Crandall nonetheless remained firm, and the school opened on April 1 with 15 students. She remained unmoved even when local shopkeepers refused to sell her supplies, doctors failed to visit sick children, and the Congregational church barred black students from attending services. Manure was thrown into the school's well, windows were broken with rocks, and various animal

parts (mainly from chickens and cats) were hurled at Crandall and her pupils.

With help from Quakers and local blacks, however, Crandall kept the school open. Supplies were brought in from outside Canterbury, many by other members of the Crandall family, and William Harris transported water from his farm. So the town turned toward legal action, invoking an old, long-ignored Connecticut law barring paupers and vagrants. Penalty for the offense was corporal punishment "on the naked body." They then arrested Anna Eliza Hammond , a 17-year-old student from a prominent African-American family in Providence, Rhode Island. But Judson and his allies feared the negative publicity should the punishment actually be carried out, and leading abolitionists put up a large cash bond. Consequently, this threat failed to work against Crandall and her pupils. "I have put my hand to the plough," she promised, "and I will never no never look back."

The boarding school remained open throughout April and most of May 1833. Then, the town convinced the state legislature to act. On May 24, it passed the notorious "black law" (as it came to be labelled): "no person shall set up or establish in this state any school, academy, or literary institution, for the instruction or education of colored persons who are not inhabitants of the state…without the consent, in writing, first obtained of a majority of the civil authority, and also of the select-men of the town." The citizens of Canterbury could hardly contain themselves in their joy, as people celebrated in the streets and fired off cannon.

But Prudence Crandall would not send her students home and, on June 21, was arrested for violating the new law. Taken to Brooklyn, Crandall refused to accept bond money and spent a night in jail. The Liberator and other anti-slavery forces used the imprisonment to great advantage, and the stance of Prudence Crandall became a national (and even international) cause célèbre. The wealthy abolitionist Arthur Tappan of New York provided money for the legal defense and established a newspaper, The Unionist, published in Brooklyn, which supported Crandall's position. The trial itself began on August 23 with Andrew Judson leading the prosecution and a number of Connecticut's most prominent lawyers defending Crandall. The defense argued that the "black law" was unconstitutional because it denied blacks their equal rights as citizens. This trial ended in a hung jury, but a second convicted her; the judge in the case claimed the new law was constitutional because "it would be a perversion of terms…to say that slaves, free blacks, or Indians, were citizens, within the meaning of the term, as used in the constitution."

As Prudence Crandall appealed the decision, the school remained open. In the summer of 1834, she had 32 students. The legal debate itself, in many ways, foreshadowed the question of African-American citizenship addressed in the Dred Scott decision two decades later. But in the Crandall case, the state supreme court skirted the controversial citizenship issue by simply reversing her conviction on a technicality—and thus the great controversy in Canterbury continued.

Facing Crandall's intransigence and legal defeat, some of the townspeople of Canterbury turned to more overt violence. First, someone tried to burn down the school. Then, during the night of September 9, the house "was assaulted by a number of persons with heavy clubs or iron bars," as The Liberator reported; "five window sashes were destroyed, and more than ninety panes of glass were dashed to pieces." Faced with a mounting threat to the safety of the girls, Crandall finally closed the school and moved away. The town had "won." But as William H. Burleigh, an abolitionist and teacher in Crandall's school, remarked about this apparent victory, "Twenty harmless girls, whose only offence against the peace of the community is that they have come together to obtain useful knowledge," were sent home. "I felt ashamed of Canterbury, ashamed of Connecticut, ashamed of my country."

Just before Crandall moved, she married a Baptist minister from Ithaca, New York, Calvin Philleo. Most of her friends disapproved of a union to this outsider 16 years her senior, though Philleo was an anti-slavery advocate. They thought him lazy, domineering, and unpleasant, and, though they seem to have been right, Crandall loved him. The Philleos considered opening another school for black girls in a major city, but the plan never materialized. Instead, for over 50 years Prudence Crandall lived the typical life of a married woman of the era—unfulfilled and suffocated. The freedom she enjoyed in the early 1830s disappeared. In 1842, she moved with her husband to Illinois where she faded into obscurity. After Calvin's death in 1872, she moved to Elk Falls, Kansas, to live with her brother. She worked locally for temperance, international arbitration, and women's rights, but so far removed from the major centers of population, few Americans noticed. In 1886, she told a visitor:

My whole life has been one of opposition. I never could find anyone near me to agree with. Even my husband opposed me, more than anyone. He would not let me read the books that he himself read, but I did read them. I read all sides, and searched for the truth, whether it was in science, religion, or humanity. Here, in Elk Falls, there is nothing for my soul to feed upon. Nothing, unless it comes from abroad in the shape of books, newspapers, and so on. There is no public library, and there are but one or two persons in the place that I can converse with profitably for any length of time. No one visits me, and I begin to think they are afraid of me.

That same year, the Connecticut State Legislature voted to give Prudence Crandall an annuity of $400. Led by Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), 112 people petitioned to have some compensation given to "the noble Christian woman" who had suffered "cruel outrages" at the hands of her fellow citizens many years before. Crandall accepted the money "as the settlement of a 'just debt' for the destruction of her 'hopes and prospects.'" Four years later, the woman of great principal and conviction died of influenza in Elk Falls. There now stands at Howard University a dormitory named after Prudence Crandall, an honor that she no doubt would have appreciated more than any apology or money.


Foner, Philip S., and Josephine F. Pacheco. Three Who Dared: Prudence Crandall, Margaret Douglas, Myrtilla Miner—Champions of Antebellum Black Education. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1984.

Fuller, Edmund. Prudence Crandall: An Incident of Racism in Nineteenth-Century Connecticut. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1971.

suggested reading:

Litwack, Leon F. North of Slavery: the Negro in the Free States, 1790–1860. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1961.

Yellin, Jean Fagan. Women and Sisters: The Antislavery Feminists in American Culture. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989.


Prudence Crandall Museum, Canterbury, Connecticut.

John M. Craig , Professor of History, Slippery Rock University, Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania, author of Lucia Ames Mead and the American Peace Movement and numerous articles on activist American women