(WOMENSENEWS)–Prudence Crandall was a Quaker, a white woman who believed in education regardless of gender or race. In the fall of 1832, after a year’s success with the daughters of wealthy local families in Canterbury, Conn., she opened the doors of her academy to Sarah Harris, who was free, black and 20 years old.
Mayhem ensued. Whites fled. The school closed. Aided by abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and free black communities throughout the North, she defiantly reopened in 1833 as a boarding and teacher-training school with a class of 20 black female students, some from as far away as Boston, Philadelphia or New York City.
What followed was worse than mayhem. Town residents persuaded the state legislature to outlaw private schools for nonresident colored persons. Church bells tolled in Canterbury the day the legislation passed.
Vagrancy laws could now be evoked against the students and they could legally be whipped. Crandall was arrested twice for refusing to shut down. All the shops and meetinghouses in town were closed to her and her pupils. Doctors wouldn’t treat them. Her well was filled with manure. Rotten eggs and stones were hurled at the building that was both her school and home.
On September 9, 1834, a mob attacked, setting fire to the building and, fearing for the safety of her students, Crandall gave up. She moved soon afterwards to Illinois, married an abolitionist Baptist minister, set up a school in her home and worked for women’s rights. Arguments from her Connecticut trial were used in the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark school desegregation decision on 1954.
Louise Bernikow is the author of seven books and numerous magazine articles. She travels to campuses and community groups with a lecture and slide show about activism called “The Shoulders We Stand On: Women as Agents of Change.”
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