Prudence Crandall

Prudence Crandall

Prudence Crandall was born on September 3, 1803, in Carpenter’s Mills, Rhode Island. When she was ten years old her parents Pardon and Esther relocated the family to Canterbury, CT. Prudence attended the Black Hill Quaker School approximately five miles from her home. Raised as a Quaker and a pacifist she also was introduced to the ideals of social justice from her teacher Rowland Greene who was an ardent abolitionist. At age 22 she entered the Moses Brown School in Providence, RI. After graduating she began her teaching career at a school in Plainfield, CT.

In 1831, she and her sister Almira purchased the Elisha Payne house in Canterbury, CT. At the request of some of the more prosperous residents, she established the Canterbury Female Boarding School. During the initial year of the school’s existence, Prudence and her sister instructed forty girls in the elementary subjects of history, geography, arithmetic, and grammar.  The success of the school was greeted with overwhelming approval by the residents of Canterbury.

During that same year of 1831, William Lloyd Garrison began publishing the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator. This newspaper rapidly became one of the primary beacons of the abolitionist movement. Prudence Crandall became acquainted with newspaper through her maid’s fiancé Charles Harris, a local agent for the periodical. The newspaper’s articles became the touchstone to Crandall’s increasing awareness of the plight of not only enslaved black people but of the discrimination of free black persons. During the fall of 1832, Prudence Crandall enrolled Sarah Harris at the school making it the first racially integrated school in the United States.

The reaction to the admittance of Sarah Harris by the local community was swift. Led by the local lawyer Andrew Judson, female students were removed from the school by their parents almost immediately. The viability of the school endangered by the departure of the white students spurred Crandall to reimagine the school as an institution solely dedicated to “young ladies and misses of color”. With the editorial support of William Lloyd Garrison and the financial support of New York businessman Arthur Tappan, Crandall reopened the school with twenty young black girls from Connecticut and some surrounding states on April 1, 1833.    

One month later the Connecticut legislature passed the “Black Law” in reaction to the school. The law prohibited any school from teaching black students without the permission of the town where it was located. Based on this new law, Crandall was arrested and spent one night in jail. During the subsequent trial in August 1833, the jury failed to reach a decision and the school remained open. One year later a second trial in Superior Court ruled against Crandall and the school. The Connecticut Supreme Court reversed this decision shortly thereafter claiming the prosecution’s case was flawed and invalid.  

Enraged by the decision of the CT Supreme Court, the residents of Canterbury repeatedly vandalized the school before finally setting the school on fire in January of 1834. Crandall made the decision to close the school on September 10, 1834, out of concern for the safety of her students.

To view images of Prudence Crandall and her historic school and a passionate defense of Crandall and her school in the letters of the abolitionist Samuel May, visit the historical photos on the Otis Library’s website.

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