Prudence Crandall

A portrait of Prudence Crandall was painted by Carl Henry in 1981 from the original commissioned by her supporters in 1834. The Henry painting hangs in the Crandall Museum; the original is at Cornell University. (PRUDENCE CRANDALL MUSEUM / June 3, 2014)

On the night of Sept. 9, 1834, Prudence Crandall, her new husband and some of her black female students were inside her school in the village of Canterbury when they heard loud voices outside and then banging on the doors. They heard glass being smashed and windows being ripped from their frames. Then, men invaded the first floor and began to overturn furniture.

Accounts of what else happened that night are almost too melodramatic to be believed. One student was said to have been so frightened she coughed up a pint of blood. The attackers may have tried to set fire to the school, willing, if not wishing, to burn its occupants to death. In any case they got what they wanted. The damage was great enough that a friend of Crandall's who arrived the next day said it was foolish to repair the school only to have it destroyed again.

Within days the school building was up for sale, the students gone and Crandall in retreat to her father's farm outside the town center. The next year she moved with her husband, an eccentric minister, to upstate New York and a few years later to the Illinois frontier. Her father, Pardon, who had been threatened for supporting her and her school, had moved west already, seeking, it was said, a place more peaceful than Connecticut.

Crandall herself never returned home for long. She was 87 when she died in 1890 at her final western homestead, a rude, book-filled cabin in Elk Falls, Kansas, where she claimed to have found happiness. By then Connecticut had begun to treat her better too. In 1886, the Civil War having cleansed the state's racial conscience, the legislature rewarded her with a $400 a year pension. A century later, the Canterbury schoolhouse was turned into a state museum. And in 1995, the legislature anointed Crandall state heroine, mating her with Nathan Hale, who earned martyrdom at the end of a British hangman's rope in 1776.

Both her house and her heroine designation, however, testify to the way Crandall has been not so much remembered as forgotten. The museum badly needed a paint job even before a state budget cut last summer threatened to close it entirely. Only an eleventh-hour appeal saved it and three other state museums. Her heroine's citation in the state Blue Book celebrates her for establishing the first school in New England for black women, but says nothing of its importance and glosses over the violence directed against it. It says that Crandall was placed on trial twice for breaking a law intended to stop her from operating her school, but merely notes that the charges were dismissed and that the school later closed.

The official version of Crandall's story is necessarily brief, but needlessly passive. In it her enemies are faceless and the state blameless.

Yet if any of her neighbors heard the battering and the probable cries for help on the night of Sept. 9, 1834, they did not rush to the rescue. Crandall's neighbors, in fact, had been the first to condemn her when, in March 1833, she announced her intention to admit black students. If not among the vigilantes who attacked her school 18 months later, her neighbors almost certainly encouraged them.

And it was Connecticut itself that exposed her to criminal prosecution. In May 1833, almost before her students had time to open their books, the General Assembly, at the urging of people from Canterbury and surrounding towns, passed the infamous Black Law that declared such schools as hers, the first in New England, illegal.

Mostly the state citation reinforces the present day image of Crandall as a sort of good-hearted liberal who wanted to give unfortunate black girls an education. Even now, each of three mock-ups for a statue of Crandall to be erected at the Capitol (funded before the budget crisis) depicts Crandall in a protective pose. Kazimiera Kozlowski, who has been director of the Crandall museum since it opened, says most visitors arrive there thinking of Crandall as a Quaker schoolmarm.

Kozlowski is quick to correct them. Crandall was indeed raised a Quaker. But about the time she opened her school, she converted to a more aggressive Baptist faith. Nor were her cherished "colored scholars," as she called them, especially innocent or poor. Most were in their late teens, from relatively sophisticated families as distant as Providence and New York dedicated to winning equality for black Americans.

Crandall wanted to give them that chance. When she defied the Black Law, she was committing a transforming and life-risking act of civil disobedience. Her trials became a national test case for the new radical abolitionist movement led by the incendiary William Lloyd Garrison. The Canterbury schoolmarm, in fact, traveled to Boston in early 1833 to seek Garrison's support for her daring plan to convert the student body of the school she ran from white to black. The initial advertisement recruiting new students ran in Garrison's "Liberator" newspaper on March 2, 1833.

It said: "Prudence Crandall, Principal of the Canterbury (Conn.) Female Boarding School returns her most sincere thanks to those who have patronized her school and would give information that on the first Monday of April next, her school will open for the reception of young ladies and little misses of color. The branches taught are as follows: - Reading, Writing, arithmetic, English grammar, Geography, History, Natural and moral Philosophy, Chemistry, music on the Piano together with the French language."

The good people of Canterbury, who had been happily sending their daughters to Crandall's school for just such an education, reacted with outrage to this ad not just because it invited black girls to town, but also because of what it implied.

In 1833, in Connecticut, as elsewhere, the notion of black equality, which Crandall deliberately embraced, was scandalously at odds with the nearly universal belief of whites in their own superiority. Even most abolitionists did not think slaves should be freed to become citizens. They were colonizationists who generally believed that blacks, whether free or enslaved, could never live peacefully in white America and should be sent back to Africa. They feared crime and discord, and worse, "amalgamation," the prospect of whites and blacks mixing socially and carnally.

At its most extreme, equality raised fears of bloody rebellion. Nat Turner's Virginia slave uprising had been stamped out less than two years before. Turner was still at large when, in September 1831, the townspeople of New Haven rejected by a vote of 700 to 4 an abolitionist plan to open a school similar to Crandall's for young black men near Yale.

A newspaper editorial against the New Haven school was typical of the sentiment of the time. "What benefit can it be to a waiter or coachman to read Horace, or be a profound mathematician?" the editorial said, arguing higher education would only increase Negro discontent. In Philadelphia, a meeting of colonizationists congratulated New Haven on its "escape from the monstrous evil" of a Negro college.

In Canterbury, people believed Crandall was in league with ultra-radicals like Garrison, who thought colonization was as immoral as slavery. At one town meeting, Canterbury residents passed a resolution declaring that her school was designed as an abolitionist "theater ... to promulgate their disgusting doctrines of amalgamation, and their pernicious sentiments of subverting the Union. Their pupils were to have been congregated here from all quarters under the false pretence of educating them, but really to TO SCATTER FIRE-BRANDS, arrows and death among the brethren of our own blood."

The only fire-brands scattered in Canterbury, it turned out, were by arsonists bent on shutting her school down. Even before the final assault, there had been at least one proven attempt to set it on fire.

The hostility directed toward Crandall's school was hardly an aberration in supposedly tolerant New England. One of her evicted students transferred to the integrated Noyes Academy, in Canaan, N.H. It opened in March 1835 and by summer, the town had voted to close the school. But the people in Canaan didn't appeal to the state or act under the cover of darkness as the people of Canterbury had done. Instead on Aug. 10, a demolition crew hitched a long train of oxen to the Noyes Academy and dragged it off its foundation. According to one account, the students were still inside.