Article

Prudence Crandall, Sarah Harris, and a Struggle for Black Women’s Education (Teach It!)

A woman holding a book
Portrait of Prudence Crandall painted by Francis Alexander, 1834. Courtesy Cornell University Library.

Introduction

"Women's History to Teach Year-Round" provides manageable, interesting lessons that showcase women’s stories behind important historic sites. In this lesson, students explore the struggle to maintain a school for African-American women in Canterbury, Connecticut three decades before the Civil War. This lesson is adapted from the Teaching with Historic Places lesson plan, “From Canterbury to Little Rock: The Struggle for Educational Equality for African Americans.”

Background

The American South is not the only region of the United States with a legacy of slavery and racism. Northern states are also tied to this history. In Connecticut, the majority of African Americans were free by 1800 but the state did not fully end slavery until 1848. African Americans would not be recognized as U.S. citizens until after the Civil War. Many white citizens opposed slavery, but did not often believe that African Americans should have full legal rights. A large number of white New Englanders also profited from the slave trade and the manufacture of products created by enslaved labor. At this time, the popular colonizationist movement proposed that African Americans could never be part of the United States and should be forcibly returned to Africa.

Events in Canterbury, Connecticut, in the early 1830s brought racism to the forefront when a white teacher named Prudence Crandall admitted Sarah Harris, an African-American student, to her boarding school and subsequently opened a school for Black students. The town's angry and ultimately violent reaction gained national attention.

United States History Standards for Grades 5-12

Era 4: Expansion and Reform (1801-1861)

  • Standard 3A - The student understands the changing character of American political life in “the age of the common man.”

  • Standard 3B - The student understands how the debates over slavery influenced politics and sectionalism.
  • Standard 4A - The student understands the abolitionist movement.
  • Standard 4B - The student understands how Americans strived to reform society and create a distinct culture.
  • Standard 4C - The student understands changing gender roles and the ideas and activities of women reformers.

Exterior of a large building
Prudence Crandall’s house, 2007. Courtesy Jerry Dougherty, WikiMedia Commons.

Reading

In the fall of 1831, the residents of Canterbury, Connecticut, asked Prudence Crandall, a 27-year-old teacher, to open a private school for young women in their community. Crandall was known as an excellent teacher, having received a fine education and having taught successfully at local district schools. She agreed and paid the down payment on a mansion on the town’s green.

The Canterbury Female Boarding School was a success and a source of pride for the community. Young women students, all white, learned reading, writing, arithmetic, English grammar, geography, history, chemistry, astronomy, and moral philosophy. Students’ families could pay extra for instruction in drawing, painting, music, and French. With student tuition, Crandall was able to pay off the $1500 mortgage within a year.

At the time that Crandall opened her school in Connecticut, white and African-American children received a free elementary education at the district schools. Black children did not have access to schooling above the primary level, either in public or private schools.

Crandall practiced Quakerism, a Christian denomination that opposed slavery and promoted education for people of color. Yet she was not strongly committed to fighting against racism, either. She became more aware thanks to the efforts of Marcia Davis, a Black woman who worked as a housekeeper in Crandall’s home, and Davis’ friend Sarah Harris. The two young women educated Crandall on the realities of racism in the United States. Sarah Harris’ father was the local distributor of the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator, and Marcia Davis would sometimes leave copies of the newspaper where she knew Crandall would find them. The Liberator promoted immediate abolition, a more radical idea than the gradual abolition that many white abolitionists supported.

In the fall of 1832, Sarah Harris asked Prudence Crandall to admit her to the Canterbury Boarding School. Harris had completed primary school and wanted to continue her education in order to become a teacher for Black students in her hometown of Norwich, Connecticut. Crandall agreed and Harris enrolled as a day student. By enrolling at Prudence Crandall’s academy, Sarah Harris integrated what had been an all-white school.

Most of Canterbury’s residents immediately objected, horrified that African-American women would be educated in their town. Many residents, including many community leaders, supported the colonizationist movement, which proposed deporting all Black Americans to Africa against their will. The parents of Crandall’s white students threatened to pull their daughters out of school if Harris remained as a student. Unwilling to expel Harris, Crandall realized she must find some alternative to keep the school open.

In the spring of 1833, Crandall traveled to Boston to meet with William Lloyd Garrison, an outspoken white abolitionist and the publisher of The Liberator. They discussed the possibility of reopening the school as an academy for African-American young women. With Garrison's assistance Prudence Crandall traveled throughout New England to meet with upper-middle class Black families who might send their daughters to the school. She soon realized that the school could be successful. Newspaper advertisements announced that as of April 1, 1833, the academy would reopen for the purpose of educating "young ladies and little misses of color." Enrollment soon rose to 24 students, most of whom were boarders. When the school opened, its curriculum was identical to that of Crandall's first Canterbury school.

An older woman
Sarah Harris Fayerweather later in life. Courtesy Prudence Crandall Museum Collections, Department of Economic and Community Development, State of Connecticut.

Town residents responded with outrage, urging Crandall to abandon the project and then organizing a general boycott of the school when she refused. Both Crandall and her students endured constant harassment. Shopkeepers refused to sell them food and townspeople pelted the building with stones and eggs. Under the cover of darkness, the school's opponents even attempted to set the building on fire in January 1834.

Racist community members were so determined and so influential that, on May 24, 1833, the Connecticut General Assembly enacted a measure known as the Black Law. This act made it illegal for African Americans from outside the state to get an education in Connecticut without the town's permission.

Convinced that the Assembly's new law was immoral and constitutionally illegal, Crandall ignored it and continued to recruit and teach her students. She was arrested on June 27, 1833 and spent one night in jail for violating the Black Law. Crandall was found guilty at her trial in October 1833. Judge David Daggett ruled that African Americans were not citizens and therefore did not have the freedom to get an education. Crandall appealed the decision to Connecticut's Supreme Court, all the while continuing to operate her school.

The Black Law and Crandall's resistance to it sparked a year-long debate among New Englanders on the issues of abolition and colonization. The Liberator thundered against the injustice, and soon people living throughout the United States knew of Canterbury and Prudence Crandall. The conflict allowed abolitionists to show yet another example of racism in the United States. Leaders in the abolitionist movement helped Crandall recruit students for her school, gave her support, and provided for her financially.

On July 26, 1834, the Connecticut Supreme Court of Errors dismissed the case against Crandall on a technical issue and she was free to keep running her school. The lower court decision that African Americans were not protected as citizens, however, still remained. Although Crandall had won a technical legal victory, the residents of Canterbury would not accept the Supreme Court's decision. On the night of September 9, 1834, an angry mob broke in and ransacked the school building, breaking more than 90 windows. The mob terrorized the students with clubs and iron bars. Crandall had not been deterred by the Black Law and local backlash, but the threat of violence was too much. Fearing for the girls' safety, Crandall closed the school the following morning.

Prudence Crandall left Canterbury shortly after the school closed. She continued to be active in abolitionist circles, speaking at banquets sponsored by abolitionists and African-American societies. She also became an advocate for women’s suffrage. In 1848 Crandall moved to Illinois, where she taught school and farmed land owned by her father. In 1877 she moved to Elk Falls, Kansas, where she started a school that served Indigenous students.

Sarah Harris later became an active abolitionist and a conductor on the Underground Railroad, helping enslaved people journey to freedom.1 In 1877, she travelled to Kansas, a long journey at the time, to visit Prudence Crandall.2 The two also wrote letters to each other for updates about former students. At least five of the African-American students Crandall taught in Canterbury—Mary Harris, Miranda Glasko, Elizabeth N. Smith, Mary Elizabeth Miles, and Julia Williams—became teachers in African-American schools.3

In 1883, Mark Twain, a resident of Hartford, Connecticut, offered to buy Crandall her former home in Canterbury, but she declined the offer. Prudence Crandall died in Elk Falls, Kansas, in 1890 at the age of 87.

Discussion Questions

  1. How did Marcia Davis and Sarah Harris teach Crandall about racism in the United States?
  2. Why did Crandall close her school the first time? Why did she reopen it as an academy for Black women?
  3. What risks did Crandall take once she reopened the school? What risks did her African-American students take?
  4. Why do you think the events at Canterbury captured so much attention at the time?
  5. Why do you think Prudence Crandall moved away from Canterbury after the school closed for the second time? Why do you think she declined Mark Twain’s offer?

Activity 1: The Awakening of Prudence Crandall

Have students read the following two documents and answer the questions below, working either individually or in small groups. Then, working either individually or in pairs, students should create timelines showing what they believe were Prudence Crandall’s steps in becoming an advocate for African-American rights. For each point on their timelines, students should cite a phrase or sentence from the documents as evidence. Afterwards, have students present their timelines in small groups and discuss the differences between their chronologies.

As an extra activity, students could answer the following prompt through discussion or written response: According to the two documents, how did Crandall’s religion influence her work?

Document 1: "Letter to the Windham County Advertiser (May 7, 1833)"
Crandall describes how her school for African-American students came to be. Document 1 was published in Fruits of Colonization (1833) and is available online at The Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition.

Canterbury, May 7, 1833

Mr. Holbrook: Whatever reluctance I may feel to appear before the public, circumstance require that I should do so. After all that has been said in various newspapers, about me and my school and my friends it seems that I owe it to them and to myself to make a simple statement that you and others may know the object of my present school and also what first induced me to establish it; and to exonerate my friends and myself from several unreasonable censures and misrepresentations that are in circulation.

A colored girl of respectability — a professor [believer] of religion — and daughter of honorable parents called on me sometime during the month of September last and said in a very earnest manner "Miss Crandall, I want to get a little more learning, if possible enough to teach colored children and if you will admit me to your school, I shall forever be under greatest obligation to you. If you think it will be the means of injuring you, I will not insist on the favor."

I did not answer her immediately, as I thought if I gave her permission some of my scholars might be disturbed. In further conversation with her however I found she had great anxiety to improve in learning.

Her repeated solicitations were more than my feelings could resist and I told her if I was injured on her account I would bear it — she might enter as one of my pupils. The girl had not long been under my instruction before I was informed by several persons that she must be removed or my school would be greatly injured.

This was unpleasant news for me to hear but I continued her in my school. Previous to any excitement concerning her there fell in my way several publications that contained many facts relative to the people of color of which I was entirely ignorant. My feelings began to awaken. I saw that the prejudice of whites against color was deep and inveterate. In my humble opinion it was the strongest if not the only chain that bound those heavy burdens on the wretched slaves, which we ourselves are not willing to touch with one of our fingers. I felt in my heart to adopt the language of the Sacred Preacher when He said — "So I turned to consider all the oppressions that are done under the sun and behold the tears of such as were oppressed, and they had no comforter; and on the side of their oppressors there was power but they had no comforter. Therefore I praised the dead that are already dead more than the living which are yet alive."

I said in my heart, here are my convictions. What shall I do? Shall I be inactive and permit prejudice, the mother of abominations, to remain undisturbed? Or shall I venture to enlist in the ranks of those who with the Sword of Truth dare hold combat with prevailing iniquity? I contemplated for a while the manner in which I might best serve the people of color. 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. This I deem my duty, how to perform it, I knew not.

Questions for Document 1

  1. According to the first paragraph, why did Prudence Crandall write this letter?
  2. Who is the “colored girl of respectability” that Crandall describes?
  3. Why was Crandall hesitant to enroll her first African-American student?
  4. For what reasons did Crandall agree to enroll the student? Note that Crandall writes, “Previous to any excitement concerning her…” at the beginning of the paragraph describing the publications she read.


Document 2: "Letter to Simeon Jocelyn (April 17, 1833)"
Crandall wrote this letter soon after she reopened her school for African-American students. Document 2 was published in "Abolition Letters Collected by Captain Arthur B. Spingarn," Journal of Negro History, vol. XVIII, 1933, p. 82-84, and is available online at The Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition.

Canterbury, April 17th, 1833

Rev. S. S. Jocelyn
New Haven, Conn.

My very Dear Friend
Disappointment seems yet to be my lot. I have only two boarders and one day scholar — one girl is under warning to depart the town. Her accusation is that she is residing here against the peace of the state…

The thought of such opposition as has been raised in the minds of the people of Canterbury and the adjoining towns never once entered into my mind while contemplating the change I am now endeavoring to effect in my school. Very true I thought many of the high-minded worldly men would oppose the plan but that christians would act so unwisely and conduct in a manner so outrageously was a thought distant from my view. I have put my hand to the plough and I will never no never look back — I trust God will help me keep this resolution for in Him only there is safety for mine own arm never brought salvation.

I have had in the Providence of God to pass through many trying seasons but place them all together they are of small moment compared with the present scene of adversity — yet in the midst of this affliction I am as happy as at any moment of my life…

If this school is crushed by inhuman laws another I suppose cannot be obtained, certainly one for white scholars can never be taught by me. As for myself I think I shall fare well enough — I have sufficient property in my hands to pay my debts — to work I am not ashamed and to beg I do not fear the necessity…

I have received a letter from that invaluable man A. Tappan today — he thinks it best to sustain the school where it is if it can be done without to great expense and if otherwise seek a place somewhere else — Mr. May yesterday received a letter from a friend of his informing him that in the town of Reading Mass. the people are willing to have my school established. Do not mention this to anyone until we get further information from that town…


Questions for Document 2

  1. Was Crandall surprised about the amount of opposition the school received? Why do you think this was?
  2. Why do you think Crandall said she would never again open a school for white students?
  3. Why do you think Crandall was “as happy as at any moment of my life”?
  4. What did Crandall say about the town of Reading, Massachusetts? Why do you think Crandall later decided not to reopen her school somewhere else after it was forced to close?

Activity 2: Analyzing a Song

Divide students into small groups and have them read the song lyrics out loud. Students should research any words or references that they do not know. Then, have students answer the questions below. After students have completed the questions, discuss the following: Why do you think Prudence Crandall wrote this song? What effect do you think it had on her supporters who visited the school?

Document 3: "Four little children here you see..."
Prudence Crandall composed this song for her students in June 1833. The students would sing it to supporters of the school when they visited. Document 3 is available online at The Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition.

Four little children here you see
In modest dress appear.
Come listen to our song so sweet
And our complaints you'll hear.

'Tis here we came to learn to read
And write and cipher too.
But some in this enlightened land
Declare 'twill never do.

The morals of this favored town
Will be corrupted soon.
Therefore they strive with all their might
To drive us from our home.

Sometimes when we have walked the streets
Saluted we have been
By guns and drums and cow bells, too
And horns of polished tin.

With warnings, threats, and words severe
They visit us at times
And gladly would they send us off
To Africa's burning climes.

Our teacher too they put in jail
Fast held by bars and locks!
Did ere such persecution reign
Since Paul was in the stocks?

But we forgive, forgive the men
That persecute us so
May God in mercy save their souls
From everlasting woe!

Questions for Document 3

  1. What is the main message of this song?
  2. What examples of sarcasm can you find in the song lyrics?
  3. What do the song lyrics mean by, “gladly would they send us off to Africa's burning climes”?
  4. Why do you think the song lyrics said, “we forgive, forgive the men that persecute us so”?

1 "Students at Prudence Crandall’s School for African-American Women: 1833 to 1834," CT.gov (November 2017), https://portal.ct.gov/-/media/DECD/Historic-Preservation/04_State_Museums/Prudence-Crandall-Museum/Black-Students-1833-1834.pdf?la=en, 1.
2 "Students at Prudence Crandall’s School for African-American Women: 1833 to 1834," 1.
3 "Students at Prudence Crandall’s School for African-American Women: 1833 to 1834," 1-4.

Last updated: August 24, 2020