History Around the Corner: Prudence Crandall championed education for all
I was reading a list of interesting historical sites and museums in and around eastern Connecticut and came upon a brief biography of Prudence Crandall and a museum named after her in the town of Canterbury. I learned that she is the female version of Nathan Hale, our Connecticut State Hero. I didn’t know Connecticut had an official State Heroine or what one must do to achieve the title. I wanted to know more and found plenty about the context of her life, her background, and the home/museum that bears her name.
In the 1830s slavery was the main source of agricultural labor that many believed was essential to prosperity in the southern states as well as in New England. However, there were many freed slaves who made their way as well as they could, often achieving an education. An education for women, black or white, was a luxury. There was also about this time a growing movement to abolish slavery on moral grounds, a sentiment shared by Prudence. Slavery and its detractors were going head to head, sometimes violently as the abolitionist movement grew. In white communities fear of equality between the races was growing.
Prudence Crandall was born in 1803 to a Quaker family in Rhode Island and received an excellent education in a variety of subjects. Her objective was to run a boarding school for young women, and she was very successful up until she enrolled a young African-American woman named Sarah Harris in 1832.
The reaction of the community was predictable for the era. Crandall lost her paying students from her community and was ostracized by her former supporters. Young African-American women were recruited from major cities in the Northeast to enroll and carry on the work of the Academy. Crandall held firm to her belief that slavery was a sin and all people deserved a chance for a good education.
The General Assembly roused to take action and passed a law (called the Black Law) prohibiting Crandall from teaching out-of-state African-American students. Court cases and a short stint in jail soon aroused public interest, and the Black Laws were eventually rescinded in 1834. Her legal battles were over, but her academy and the enrolled African-American women were endangered by mobs, vandals, and bonfires while they were in residence.
Prudence and her husband left Connecticut for good in 1840. She died in 1890 at the age of 87 in Kansas and is remembered by many for her great influence in the cause of abolition and the education of African-Americans.
On a Friday afternoon I drove to the town of Canterbury to find the Prudence Crandall Museum, slightly more than a half hour’s drive from Montville. The graceful Georgian-style house, also known as the Elisha Payne House, is notable for its elaborate classical Greek construction (currently painted a cream color) and dramatic entries with Palladian windows in the front and side doors.
Built in 1805, it was purchased by Crandall in 1834 as a school for young ladies. The house is on the National Registry of Historic Places since 1970, was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1991, and is included in the Canterbury Historic District. It was declared worthy of a visit by Yankee Magazine in 2006. The Prudence Crandall House and Museum are located at 1 Canterbury Rd., Canterbury at the intersection of Rt. 14 and Rt. 169. The house and museum are operated by the state historical preservation office, which does a lot for ever-dwindling funding.
What impresses me most about the Crandall House Museum is the devotion to scholarly work especially in the area of African-American studies. When you visit, you should watch the dramatic, 12-minute video at the beginning of the tour that highlights the courage of this young woman and her basic ideals about the value of education. From there a docent will lead a tour of the house pointing out conditions typical of life in boarding schools in New England. The small gift shop features many pertinent publications. A magnificent copper beech tree shades the front lawn and looks as though it has been standing there for ages. Admission is $6, $4 for seniors & youth. For activities associated with the museum consult the Friends of the Museum website.
How then did Prudence Crandall become Connecticut’s State Heroine?
As in most states that have state animals, state flowers, or state birds, we hope to preserve a person, place, or thing by giving it “official” status.
Connecticut, the same legislative body that once forbade her teaching, declared Crandall our Official State Heroine in 1995. A group of elementary students touring the Capitol noted that there was a statue of Nathan Hale, our State Hero, but not one for Prudence Crandall. Encouraged by local representatives, students wrote letters, raised money and awareness and finally helped to acquire a state grant of $100,000 to commission a statue for the Capitol. Since 2009 there has been a life-size bronze statue of Crandall and one of her African-American students in the Capitol.
Phil Houk is a former submariner, UCONN grad, and retired field service technician. He can be reached at email@example.com.