#4 Prudence Crandall Steps Out of Her Comfort Zone

January 28th was the celebration of the third year of “spending my last quarter.” One day Princess, my ten year old granddaughter, asked me, “How old are you, Bibi?”

When I told her 75, she quickly told me, “That’s old, Bibi.”

Since we’d been studying American money, I responded, ” No, I still have another quarter to spend.”

Princess, always with a question, asked, “Well, how are you going to spend it?”

This week’s blog is part of that spending down the last quarter. It tells the story of Prudence Crandall, whose death happened on Jan. 28, 1890 after a life well lived in helping bring education to young women. Born to Pardon and Esther Crandall, a Quaker couple in Hopkinson, Rhode Island in 1803, Prudence had two brothers, Hezekiah and Reuben, and a baby sister, Almira. Often stubborn, sometimes disobedient, even obstinate her older brother Hezekiah thought, but smart, oh so smart. Her blue eyes sparkled with intelligence.

When her family moved to a farm near Canterbury, Connecticut, Prudence was ten or eleven. She was sent to Moses Brown’s New England Boarding School in Providence, Rhode Island, where she learned the same broad range of subjects that the boys learned, excelling and even teaching the younger students as she got older. She was a born teacher! Moses Brown was an abolitionist, so Prudence early came to see slavery as a sin. She, however, had little contact nor few encounters with blacks and thus knew little about their lives and struggles.

That was to change in 1831 when, after gaining a positive reputation as a teacher at a female academy in Plainfield, Connecticut, she was invited to start a similar school in Canterbury. With $500 down and a $1500 loan from the village leaders, she bought a large house facing the village green and opened her school for young white girls. Almira came to help her teach and a young black woman who had lived with her family since she was nine, Mariah Davis, came to be her assistant and manage the household. Prudence had high standards and expectations for her students. The students responded quickly and well to the sisters’ helpful instruction and loving ways. The house was filled with purposeful learning and varied activities. The village was well pleased.

One day a young black woman and friend of Mariah’s, Sarah Harris, came to see Prudence and asked to enroll as a day student. She assured Prudence that her father could pay the $25 per quarter tuition. Sarah had finished the local district school but wanted to learn more in order to start a school for children of color. At first, Prudence put her off and went about her teaching. Mariah was disappointed as she knew how deeply Sarah wanted to teach. Her friend’s father was a successful black farmer who believed education was important for all young people, but especially those of color. He distributed “The Liberator,” William Lloyd Garrison’s newly published anti-slavery newspaper. Mariah was in love with Sarah’s brother Charles and read the paper whenever a new issue came out. She brought the most recent copy to Prudence in support of her friend. As so often happens to Quakers, God moved in mysterious ways. A village leader came by and treated Mariah impolitely. Prudence was so annoyed, she sought out the newspaper and read straight through the night. She was moved by its stories of the brutality, injustices and horrendous struggles of blacks, both slave and free. She turned to her Bible and was led to the verses of Solomon about the call to be a “comforter to the oppressed.”

Prudence was in a struggle with her conscience. She realized during this struggle that she held a prejudice against people of color in spite of her Quaker upbringing. It was a humbling experience, one that led her to want to do something for these people. But what? She had no great wealth, but she could teach! She must be obedient to this call. She would enroll Sarah Harris in her school. Some of her students knew Sarah from the district school and had found her smart, kind, and helpful. Most of them welcomed her and looked forward to the help she could give them in their studies. Their families were not pleased at all. Some even threatened to “destroy ” the school.

Thus began a two year battle between Prudence and her allies and the village leaders and theirs. It began with the villagers not wanting their daughters going to school with a young black woman, no matter that they had done so as children. Prudence was stubborn. She was being obedient to her call and would not back down. The school was hers. She had paid off the loan and was educationally and financially successful. When it became obvious that an agreement could not be reached, Prudence came up with another idea. She would close her present school and open one exclusively for “young ladies and little misses of color.” The villagers were irate. They had lost their school of good reputation and now all of their fears and dislikes of blacks surfaced. They believed that more blacks would come to their village, their habits and behaviors would lower their real estate values, bring crime and even social mixing. Besides, they said, weren’t blacks socially and intellectually inferior?

Prudence went to Boston to see William Lloyd Garrison and gain his support. With his help and support, she travelled to Providence, New York City, and Philadelphia to meet black families and recruit students. A chance encounter with Arthur Tappan, a wealthy silk merchant and philanthropist, led to much needed financial help. When the townspeople sought to use an old vagrancy law and then new legislation, the Black Law, against her and her students, Tappan provided bonds and lawyers. The Black Law made it illegal to teach black students who had not come from Connecticut. Clergymen in nearby towns came to her aid. Samuel J. May, a Unitarian minister, and Levi Kneeland, a Baptist pastor, were ready to help with strategy and offered friendship. On April, 1833, she opened her school with only two students but soon had 17. When the villagers refused to sell her supplies and fouled her well with manure, her family supported the school, bringing barrels of water, food, and other supplies from nearby towns. Even threats of fines and destruction of their property did not stop them. Only Reuben, her younger brother, opposed her. He was studying medicine with the local doctor, Andrew Harris, who lived near the school and refused to treat anyone there. Still, Reuben dropped off fresh fish he had caught to make dinners more varied.

Keeping her school going required courage and commitment of Prudence, Almira, and the students. They displayed it time after time. The villagers waged a campaign of harassment, insults, egg and rock throwing, and even a fire set one night and blamed on an ally of the school Prudence was arrested and jailed, accompanied by her friend Anna Benson. Even though Rev. May and George Benson bailed them out the next day, the action brought much publicity and support from other U.S. and foreign cities. Three trials were held. Prudence and the townspeople were frustrated by the results: the first ended in a hung jury, the second in a guilty verdict, and the third in a dismissal of the guilty verdict on a technicality. The school stayed open. Prudence married a Baptist minister and supporter, Calvin Philleo. Her friends and family were glad for her, but some were not in tune with her choice. The townspeople, thwarted in their legal attempts, took matters into their own hands. In September, 1834, a mob came in the night, broke ninety windows, destroyed furniture, scattered debris about, and frightened the household. Prudence was done. She did not have money for repairs that might be needed over and over again, She did not want to see any of her family or students hurt. She had tried to be obedient to the call. She had stepped out of her comfort zone, been faithful in her action, and led members of her support community to work for justice and equality, and she had tried so hard to forgive and love her attackers. Calvin encouraged her to sell the school and move. Two days after the raid, the school was closed.

Prudence Crandall was only 32 when she left Canterbury, but she was obedient to the call in so many ways for another 55 years. She moved with Calvin to several places until he died in 1874, putting an end to his physical and mental illnesses and sometimes abusive and strange behavior. Along the way, Prudence remained loyal to her friends and former students. She kept in touch with them, recommended books for them to read, and encouraged their service and action in the world. She taught people of all colors, opened schools, worked for temperance, women’s rights, and peace. After Calvin’s death, she moved to Elk Falls, Kansas to live in a small log cabin she built on land given her by her brother Hezekiah. She loved the beauty of the Kansas prairie. Four years before she died in 1890, the people of Canterbury, some of them relatives of her opponents and ashamed of the town’s past behavior, petitioned the state to grant her an annual pension of $400. Their petition was supported by Mark Twain, then a resident of Hartford, Connecticut. Prudence did not see this as charity but a just payment for the debt she incurred. She wrote to Twain to thank him and asked for copies of his books and his picture. He gladly sent them. At 87, she was still seen going to meetings and urging actions to help others. She was no more afraid to die than she was to live. It was January 28, 1890 when she was laid to her final rest in the Elk Falls Cemetery.

In 1994, Prudence Crandall was made the Connecticut State Heroine. Her house on the Green became a museum, now managed by the National Park Service as an Historic Site. A curriculum, called “From Canterbury to Little Rock: The Struggle for Educational Equality for African Americans at https://www.nps.gov/nr/twhp/wwwlps/lessons/crandall/crandall.htm has excellent information and is easy to use with Gr. 4/5-12. The New England Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) has a play at https://neym.org/qye/fds/lessons/forbidden-schoolhouse. It is good for Gr. 4-8.

Books suitable for elementary/middle school grades :

  • Miss Crandall’s School for Young Ladies and Little Misses of Color by Elizabeth Alexander Gr. K-2;
  • Forbidden Schoolhouse by Suzanne Jurmain Gr. 4/5-12;
  • Prudence Crandall: Woman of Courage by Elizabeth Yates Gr. 3-6;

Books for more in-depth teacher research:

  • Prudence Crandall: A Biography by Marvis O. Welch;
  • A Whole-Souled Woman: Prudence Crandall and the Education of Black Women by Susan Stane;
  • Prudence Crandall: Teacher for Equal Rights by Eileen Lucas

Questions for consideration (younger children):

  • What do the pictures in Elizabeth Alexander’s book tell you about Prudence Crandall’s students?
  • How would you feel going away from home to go to school?
  • Because Prudence Crandall was a Quaker, how was her school like yours or how was it different?
  • How would you feel if people called you names or threw things at you when you were walking outside your school? How do you think the girls felt?
  • Rev. Samuel May was a minister in a church, but he loved to tell stories about his childhood. What stories do you like to hear from your parents or grandparents about their childhoods?
  • How do you think the girls felt when their school closed and they had to go home?

Questions for consideration (older children):

  • How do you think Mariah felt when Prudence Crandall did not accept her friend Sarah right away? What did she do?
  • Prudence Crandall had a “struggle with her conscience.” What do you think that means?
  • How would you describe the following: being “called” to do something? being obedient to that call? stepping outside your comfort zone?
  • How do think Prudence Crandall might have responded better to the fears the white villagers had about the black students coming?
  • Define: hung jury, guilty verdict, appealing a verdict to a higher court, and dismissal of a verdict on a technicality.
  • How did Prudence Crandall spend her last two quarters? Why was she no more afraid to die than to live?

See you next week with stories about Paul Cuffe, New England sea captain .

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