Prudence Crandall

American educator Prudence Crandall (1803-1890) made one of the early experiments in providing educational facilities for African American girls.

Prudence Crandall was born on Sept. 3, 1803, in Hopkinton, R.I., to a Quaker family. Her father moved to a farm at Canterbury, Conn., in 1813. She attended the Friends' Boarding School at Providence, R.I., and later taught in a school for girls at Plainfield, Conn. In 1831 she returned to Canterbury to run the newly established Canterbury Female Boarding School. When Sarah Harris, daughter of a free African American farmer in the vicinity, asked to be admitted to the school in order to prepare for teaching other African Americans, she was accepted. Immediately, the townspeople objected and pressured to have Harris dismissed.

Crandall was familiar with the abolitionist movement and had read William Lloyd Garrison's Liberator. Faced with the town's resolutions of disapproval, she met with abolitionists in Boston, Providence, and New York to enlist support for the transformation of the Canterbury school into a school for African American girls. The Liberator advertised for new pupils. In February 1833 the white pupils were dismissed, and by April, 20 African American girls took up studies. A trade boycott and other harassments of the school ensued. Warnings, threats, and acts of violence against the school replaced disapproving town-meeting resolutions.

Abolitionists came to Crandall's defense, using the issue as a stand against opposition to furthering the education of freed African Americans. Despite attacks the school continued operation. On May 24, 1833, the Connecticut Legislature passed a law prohibiting such a school with African Americans from outside the state unless it had the town's permission, and under this law Crandall was arrested in July. She was placed in the county jail for one night and then released under bond.

A prominent abolitionist, Arthur Tappan of New York, provided money to hire the ablest lawyers to defend the Quaker school teacher at her trial, which opened at the Windham County Court on Aug. 23, 1833. The case centered on the constitutionality of the Connecticut law regarding the education of African Americans. The defense held that African Americans were citizens in other states, were so therefore in Connecticut, and could not be deprived of their rights under the Federal Constitution. The prosecution denied that freed African Americans were citizens. The county court jury failed to reach a decision. Although a new trial in Superior Court decided against the school, when the decision reached the Supreme Court of Errors on appeal, the case was dismissed for lack of evidence.

The judicial process had not stopped the operation of the Canterbury school, but the townspeople's violence against it increased and finally closed it on Sept. 10, 1834. Crandall had married a Baptist preacher, Calvin Philleo, on Sept. 4, 1834. He took her to Ithaca, N.Y., and from there they went to Illinois and finally to Elk Falls, Kans., where she lived until her death on Jan. 28, 1890. In 1886 the Connecticut Legislature had voted her an annual pension of $400.

Further Reading on Prudence Crandall

Wendell P. and Francis J. Garrison, William Lloyd Garrison, 1805-1879: The Story of His Life Told by His Children (4 vols., 1885-1889), and John C. Kimball, Connecticut's Canterbury Tale: Its Heroine Prudence Crandall and Its Moral for Today (1886), are informative accounts of Prudence Crandall's work. See also Thomas E. Drake, Quakers and Slavery in America (1950), and Dwight L. Dumond, Antislavery: The Crusade for Freedom in America (1961).

Additional Biography Sources

Strane, Susan, A whole-souled woman: Prudence Crandall and the education of Black women, New York: W.W. Norton, 1990.

Welch, Marvis Olive, Prudence Crandall: a biography, Manchester, Conn.: Jason Publishers, 1983.

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