In 1831 the leading citizens of Canterbury, Connecticut decided to establish a “genteel” school for their daughters and Prudence Crandall, having a reputation as a fine teacher was hired to be the headmistress. At the close of the first school year, the parents congratulated themselves on having a headmistress of the school for their daughters, who had such fine abilities and was of such sterling character.
During that first school year Prudence, who was a Quaker, had begun reading the “Liberator”, which was a newspaper published by William Lloyd Garrison in Boston that advocated the abolishing of slavery. Three contemporary Quaker editors had earlier begun to publish the first periodicals in America calling for immediate and unconditional emancipation of the slaves. Those Quakers were Charles Osborn, Elihu Embree and Benjamin Lundy (an ancestor of our own member David Lundy).
Between the first and second year of the Canterbury Girls School, Sarah Harris, a local black girl, came to Prudence and pleaded for an education in the school so that she might be able to teach the children of her race. Prudence did not immediately accept Sarah as a pupil. But as the school term wore on Prudence could no longer ignore her conscience and invited the black girl, Sarah Harris, to join the classes as a day student.
This action of having a black girl invited into the school enraged the parents and Prudence was ordered to remove her from the school at once. Prudence refused to do so and instead placed an ad in Garrison’s “Liberator” asking for young ladies of color to enroll at her school. On top of that she convinced Garrison and his supporters to pledge $25.00 per quarter per pupil to cover board, washing and tuition. The townspeople were stunned. Who would have thought that such a genteel Quaker lady would turn out to be so defiant?
Special Town Meetings were called, and then Prudence was arrested and tried for violating some State law regarding the presence of blacks in the schools. Quaker abolitionists and others including William Lloyd Garrison came to her defense. The school was burned to the ground, but Prudence was finally released from jail after the Connecticut Supreme Court refused to hear the case on technical grounds.
Prudence married a Baptist preacher named Reverend Calvin Phillio, who was one of her many supporters. That marriage removed her from the Quaker fold, and he took her off to Elk Falls, Kansas. In 1886, nearly 50 years later, a young man named George Thayer traveled the continent on his “high wheel” bicycle just to see if he could find Prudence Crandall who, in his words, “was of almost national renown.” The Connecticut State Legislature, prodded by a group of leading citizens that included Mark Twain, finally went on record regretting the actions of 1833 and voted Prudence an annual pension of $400.00. She wished that she could live long enough to see some of the reforms consummated.
Prudence Crandall made her stand against slavery and racism nearly 100 years after early Quakers like John Woolman and Benjamin Lay began their preaching to ask Quakers to let their slaves go and stop slavery. After her death another 70 years passed before the slaves were finally emancipated. Today, nearly 150 years later, racism in the United States is still a major issue. “The wheels of justice turn slowly, but grind exceedingly fine.” Why?