The family story this month revolves around Prudence Crandell, a schoolteacher in Canterbury, Connecticut. Crandell, a white woman, was arrested for allowing black students to attend the female boarding school she operated. William Jay, a prominent member in the American abolitionist movement, took an interest in Crandell’s plight and eventual court case, becoming an advisor to fellow abolitionist Samuel J. May who served as Crandall’s counsel.
Crandall opened her school for women in 1831 at the request of the people of Canterbury. Most public schools denied entry to women, and Crandell opened her school in response to the demand for female education. After opening to a successful start, a young girl named Sarah Harris, the daughter of a freed black farmer, applied for admittance in the fall of 1832. Sarah was accepted and embraced by her peers, but her attendance created controversy. Many of the parents were members of the American Colonization Society (A.C.S.) and disapproved of Harris’s attendance based on race.
The A.C.S. was formed in 1817 to send free black people to Africa as an alternative to emancipation in the United States. Many white Americans believed that black Americans were an inferior race and should not be integrated into white society. Believing in the teachings of the A.C.S., many parents threatened to withdraw their daughters from Crandall’s school if Harris was allowed to stay. It was at this point that William Jay began to closely follow the case.
Instead of complying with the angry demands, Crandall transformed her boarding school into one for African American girls. William Lloyd Garrison, editor of The Liberator, the nation’s major antislavery newspaper, helped Crandall by advertising her school and by linking her with prominent African American families interested in sending their daughters to her school. Open to “young ladies and little misses of color,” Crandall’s school was soon again filled with students eager to learn.
Several days prior to the publishing of the advertisement, abolitionist Samuel J. May heard about the situation in Canterbury. May wrote to Crandall expressing his willingness to help. The two arranged a meeting, wherein May agreed to serve as Crandell’s representative at town meetings. Once in Canterbury, May began to seek the advice of William Jay. William was strongly opposed to the A.C.S. He saw the organization and the colonization movement as another way to enslave black individuals by denying them their basic rights as citizens. When Crandall’s opponents tried to prevent May from speaking at town meetings on the grounds that he was not a resident of Canterbury, William advised him to stay the course. The objection “was obviously dictated by convenience, and not by a regard for propriety.”
To legally stop Crandall’s school from operating, on May 24, 1833, the A.C.S. and its supporters established the “Black Law.” The law barred people of color from any state from attending a school in Connecticut and from residing therein. This demonstrated a point about the A.C.S. that William observed in one of his letters to May, “The Society embraces many excellent men, but however benevolent it may be in theory, its practical operation I am fully persuaded, is to aggravate the oppression of the free blacks.”
Many of the girls who attended the Canterbury School were from Philadelphia, Providence, New York City, and Boston. By keeping her school open, Prudence Crandall was violating the Black Law and a warrant was issued for her arrest. On June 27, 1833, Crandall was arrested by the county sheriff and arraigned by Justices Adams and Bacon, both of whom were involved with the A.C.S. Initially when Crandall was put in prison, she told May that she did not want to be bailed out because she knew that her case would cause citizens across the country to recognize the wickedness of the Black Law and cause a public outcry for its reversal. After a couple of days in prison, several newspapers printed stories about this racist law in Connecticut, and the public outcry began. Luckily, Samuel May was able to raise the funds through abolitionist circles to pay the $10,000 bond, and Crandall was released.
Crandall was tried and convicted in the lower courts. The verdict was appealed to the Supreme Court of Connecticut in August of the same year. William Jay wrote to May: “On the late trial of Miss Crandall, it was thought expedient by her opponents to attempt to deprive our whole free colored population of the protection of the Constitution of the United States by denying that they were citizens. Should a second trial be had, it is possible that the annexed authorities may be of some use, and I will therefore commit them to your care, as I have not the honor of being acquainted with Miss Crandell’s counsel. With sincere respect for your exertions in the cause of humanity and freedom.”
Reversed on a technicality, all charges against Crandall were dropped. Upon her release, she attempted to transition back to normalcy, but the inhabitants of Canterbury thought the crisis of integration was too serious to depend on legal technicalities. Miss Crandall was driven from the town by persecution. The shops would not sell her food; her water well was filled with manure, and her house was smeared with filth and set on fire. Unwillingly to put her students in danger, Crandall closed her school in September of 1834.
William Jay continued to denounce the intentions of the A.C.S., most notably in his book, An Inquiry into the Character and Tendency of the American Colonization, and American Anti-Slavery Societies, which was published in 1835. The proceedings in Canterbury and the Trial of Prudence Crandall were featured in the book.
Prudence Crandall eventually settled in La Salle County, Illinois, where she ran a school and was active in the women’s suffrage movement. Connecticut officially repealed the Black Law in 1838. Crandall’s Canterbury school now houses the Prudence Crandall Museum, and in 1995 she was named Connecticut’s state heroine.