Former Senate President Honors Prudence Crandall
Retired Connecticut State Senate President Pro Tempore Donald E. Williams Jr. is now the Director of Policy and Research for the Connecticut Education Association. Williams’ new book with Wesleyan University Press, Prudence Crandall’s Legacy - The Fight for Equality in the 1830s, Dred Scott, and Brown v. Board of Education, is an in-depth look at the life of the abolitionist who opened a school for girls of color in Canterbury, Connecticut in the 1830s, thirty years prior to the 13th Amendment ending slavery (1865) and the 1868 passage of the 14th Amendment, affecting the way laws are applied and “who” counts. Sure we think of ourselves as liberal now, but Crandall’s contemporaries had no love for her work and she was harassed and threatened until the safety of her students was of enough concern for Crandall to cease operations at the school.
Williams’ book examines Crandall’s early life as a Quaker and her upbringing, as well as the social and political environment of the 1830s with contemporaries like abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and Mark Twain. While Crandall started out as “just” a feminist, opening a school for young girls in the town of Canterbury in 1831 that rivaled even the best boys’ schools in the region, the mission transformed after a pivotal moment in the school’s operations—its admission of a black female from a well-to-do family, Sarah Harris, who wanted to become a teacher. Facing the outrage of local white parents who wanted the first black student expelled, Crandall had a difficult choice to make when families subsequently began to withdraw their daughters from the boarding school. Ultimately, she decided to convert the girls’ school into one exclusively for African American girls, and thus it became Miss Crandall’s School for Young Ladies and Little Misses of Color. The school attracted free young black women from all over the Eastern seaboard.
Miss Crandall faced harassment from her neighbors in Canterbury with local shops refusing to sell her supplies and authorities arresting her no less than three times for the “crime” of teaching out-of-state black women how to read and write. In response to Crandall’s new educational mission, the legislature of Canterbury passed the “Black Law” in 1833 stipulating that it was a crime to teach African Americans from a state other than Connecticut. Under the law, Crandall’s boarding school was illegal. Crandall stood trial twice after a hung jury couldn’t convict her and ultimately, her conviction was overturned by a higher court. Local townspeople harassed the students incessantly, threatened them, and when they finally poisoned the school’s well, Crandall felt her students’ lives were at too much of a risk and she closed the school.
A few years later, Crandall married an abolitionist preacher and the couple left Connecticut for the mid-west. She continued to be involved in the abolitionist cause and took up the cause of women’s suffrage, as well, as she ran another school in Illinois. By 1886, Crandall’s former Canterbury community was repentant and with the help of writer Mark Twain, persuaded the legislature to award Crandall a state pension. By then, Crandall was living in Kansas and the state continued to pay her a pension until her death in 1890.
In Williams’ view, Crandall’s actions and her lasting legacy deeply impacted the outcome of subsequent legal cases involving equality, like “the Amistad case, the Dred Scott decision, and Brown v. Board of Education, as well as how Crandall v. State impacts our modern interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment,” according to the publisher.
Crandall was inducted into the National Women’s History Museum, based in Alexandria, Virginia, and the site of her Canterbury school is now the Prudence Crandall Museum, 1 S. Canterbury Rd., Canterbury. Williams’ book is available in paperback and can be purchased on Amazon, Google Play, at university book stores, and directly from the publisher at www.wesleyan.edu/wespress.