Prudence Crandall was a woman who possessed the ability to discern in something coming to an end, the seeds of a new beginning. In 1831, the leading citizens of Plainfield, Connecticut, were overjoyed when Crandall, a young Quaker school teacher, accepted their invitation and opened a boarding academy for young women in their town.The school flourished until Crandall, decided to admit, as a student, Sarah Harris, a young, free black woman. The towns people threatened her with the ruination of her school if she didn't dismiss Sarah Harris within the week. Crandall, confronted with the certainty that she would lose most, if not all, of her white pupils if Harris remained in the school, decided to accept the challenge of intolerance by excluding not the young black women, but the young white women.1
On March 1, 1833, she addressed her white students for the final time. "It is not only the end of the term, it is the end of the school in its present form. Today this school is closed and on April 1st the school will re-open to young ladies and little misses of color."2 An end, she thought to herself, is ever a new beginning. A month later twenty young black female students from New York, Boston, and Philadelphia began classes.
The town immediately lodged a formal protest of the establishment of such a school and Crandall was threatened with violence and jail. Local shopkeepers refused to sell her food and supplies. The state legislature passed a law, which made it a crime, "to establish any institution for the education of colored persons who are not inhabitants of this state."3
She was brought to trial. Her first trial ended with a hung jury; a second jury found her guilty, but the case was appealed; no decision in the appeal trial was ever forthcoming and the prosecution was put on permanent hold. But the persecution did not stop. Rocks and eggs were thrown at the windows of the boarding school; it was set on fire. One night, the townsmen converged on the school with clubs and iron bars. They smashed the windows and tore away the wooden clapboards. The girls screamed and cried for help. Then the men dissolved into the night. Crandall felt she could no longer expose the lives of her scholars to the destructive devices of those who so hated her and her school and she decided to close it. But even this, she knew, was not an ending but a long beginning. She held on to her dream of offering schooling to black children and young women, and in January, 1863, she could write in her journal, "Defeat has marked the months [and] underscored the years, but Mr. Lincoln has issued his Emancipation Proclamation. Thank God, I am still strong. There will be a need for educators."4
Notes1 Small, Edwin W. and Miriam R. Small, p. 510.
2 Quoted by Yates, p. 59.
3 Yates, p. 143.
4 Ibid, p. 239.
SourcesSmall, Edwin W and Miriam R. Small, "Prudence Crandall: Champion of Negro Education," in Lives to Remember, Leon Stein, ed. New York: Arno Press, 1974.
Yates, Elizabeth, Prudence Crandall, Woman of Courage. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1955.
Copyright 2004 © Rita Smith
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