Widgetized Section

Go to Admin » Appearance » Widgets » and move Gabfire Widget: Social into that MastheadOverlay zone

Changing Times

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Jason Bowns
February 6, 2023

In a letter dated May 7, 1833, a Connecticut educator wrote, “I said in my heart, here are my convictions. What shall I do?”

Indeed, Prudence Crandall explored her conscience when an African-American girl named Sarah Harris asked to enroll in her school. Prudence agreed.

When families threatened to withdraw their children from the Canterbury Female Boarding School unless she expelled Harris and committed herself to educating Caucasian girls only, Prudence refused.

When a minister warned her that the school would go bankrupt without students and the financial support their tuition offered, Prudence persevered. 

She said that she’d watch the school fail before she gave in to the community pressure, declaring “That it might sink, then, for I should not turn her out!

Next, Crandall temporarily closed the school, effectively removing all students until choosing to reopen on April 1, 1833 with a revised mission. Then, the Canterbury Female Boarding School accepted only African-American girls, precluding Caucasian girls from attending at all.

Across the street from that school sat the home of Andrew Judson, Canterbury’s town clerk who, years later in 1840, became a judge and issued his infamous United States v. Amistad decision. Former President John Quincy Adams—and at that time a member of Congress—then successfully defended the African captives before the United States Supreme Court, securing their safe passage back to Africa.

Upon hearing about Crandall’s obstinance, Judson next drafted legislation which the Connecticut legislature enacted a few weeks after Prudence wrote about what was on her mind, “Shall I be inactive and permit prejudice, the mother of abominations, to remain undisturbed?”

The text read, “Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives, in General Assembly convened, that 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 this State…” The statute expressly forbade anyone who was African-American from coming into Connecticut from another state to get an education.

African-American students from Rhode Island, New York and Massachusetts attended her school. Undaunted, Prudence still taught them.

Recognizing how time likely wasn’t on her side, taking that stand is what mattered more, concluding in that same May 1833 note, “As wealth was not mine, I saw no other means of benefitting 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.” 

The not-so-neighborly Andrew Judson then led Crandall’s prosecution and conviction. That was after her arrest and a night locked up in jail. It was a price she paid for her alleged criminal activity: operating a school where African American girls from outside of Connecticut could learn “reading, writing, arithmetic, English grammar, geography, history, natural and moral philosophy, chemistry, astronomy, drawing and painting, music on the piano, together with the French language.”

Although the Connecticut Supreme Court of Errors eventually overturned the Crandall conviction a year later, during the summer of 1834, chaos reigned. That vindication did not stop an angry mob from attacking the school as they brandished clubs and metal bars. Prudence Crandall and her students were inside as dozens of windows broke and the building was partially set ablaze. Placing her students’ safety first, Crandall made the difficult decision to shut down her school for good the following day, on September 10, 1834. Then, Prudence left.

Moving westward, she died in Elk Falls, Kansas decades later, aged 86.

Today, Canterbury, Connecticut is a small town with a population of about 5,000 people. At the four-way where roads leading to Brooklyn, Plainfield, Scotland and Norwich intersect, there’s a particularly large historic Early American house.

Built in 1805, this building is the original site of the Canterbury Female Boarding School. Now it houses a different classroom where anyone is openly admitted. People come to learn about an educator who confronted injustice; its shadow dimmed the bright lights of a schoolhouse only a year after it had commenced.

Recognized as a National Historic Landmark since 1991, this Prudence Crandall Museum offers guided tours and displays an impressive array of artifacts including photographs, a note from Mark Twain and court records generated after Crandall’s brother, Reuben, was arrested for sedition in America’s capital city. Songwriter and lawyer Francis Scott Key unsuccessfully prosecuted that criminal case.

Crandall posed another question in that May 1833 letter, before her arrest when the school remained open: “Or shall I venture to enlist in the ranks of those who with the Sword of Truth dare hold combat with prevailing iniquity?” She did exactly that despite living in a world where her vision of justice was so widely degraded.

In the end, however, Prudence prevailed.

Author: Jason Bowns is a proud graduate of New York University and earned his Master in Public Administration degree from John Jay College of Criminal Justice’s Inspector General training program. A certified social studies teacher, Bowns has worked in a variety of educational settings and is especially interested in juvenile justice, penology, and public sector ethics. Contact him at [email protected].

1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (1 votes, average: 5.00 out of 5)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *