Week 35: #52 Ancestors – Free Space
By Eilene Lyon
Lately I’ve been reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Published in 1851, her tale of slavery helped pave the road to the Civil War. A cousin on my family tree didn’t have quite the elevated reputation of Mrs. Stowe, but nonetheless made a difference in the lives of Blacks in America in the 19th century.
I briefly mentioned Prudence Crandall in one of my earliest blog posts, because I found a roadside marker dedicated to her in Elk Falls, Kansas. I was passing through the area, because my Ransom relations lived there in the 1880s, as did Prudence.
Though the Ransoms probably knew of her—the community had fewer than 1500 residents in 1880—they likely weren’t acquainted. Prudence stated to a friend in 1886 that few people in town would speak to her and she believed the local clergy thought she might “upset their religious beliefs.”
Prudence Crandall was born in 1803 in Hopkinton, Rhode Island, to Pardon and Esther (Carpenter) Crandall. She is my 3rd cousin 5x removed and we have several pairs of common ancestors. At age ten, her family relocated to Canterbury, Connecticut. Prudence was brought up Quaker, and became a Baptist in her late 20s.
She had a Black servant, Mariah Davis, who introduced her to The Liberator, the newspaper published by well-known abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. She was ignited by what she read and determined to take up the cause. When the sister of Davis’s fiancé, Sarah Harris, asked to be admitted to Prudence’s school for girls in Canterbury in 1832, Prudence readily agreed. Harris came from a successful Black family and she planned to teach other Blacks.
The school had opened in 1831 to great local fanfare. Girls from families of high social standing attended the boarding school from around the region. But the locals in Canterbury were incensed by the admittance of a Black student and whites began withdrawing their daughters. Prudence made a fateful decision—she refused demands to dismiss Miss Harris. Instead, she converted her school to serve only Black students.
Public outcry grew ever shriller, but Prudence remained unruffled through it all. She had the backing of the abolition movement leaders and when the citizens petitioned the state government to pass a law that would shut the school down (they hoped), Arthur Tappan agreed to pay her legal fees.
The petition began as follows:
“Resolved, That the Government of the United States, the Nation with all its institutions, of right belong to the white men who now possess them, they were purchased by the valor and blood of their Fathers, and must never be surrendered to any other nation or race of men”
Prudence was arrested for violating the resultant Connecticut “Black Law” that prohibited colored students from out of state attending schools without local approval. As a publicity stunt (which worked wonderfully well), Prudence’s backers did not post her bond and she spent a night in jail with a convicted murderer who was to be executed shortly. (A female companion also spent the night with her.)
The case went through three tiers of the county and state court system, eventually being dismissed on a procedural matter without resolving the central question of whether free Blacks could be citizens and hold citizens’ rights.
The case was included in the legal arguments made in the Dred Scott and Brown v. Board of Education decisions at the U.S. Supreme Court, and also influenced the 14th Amendment wording.
The school continued operating until September 1834, with Prudence and her students withstanding verbal and physical abuse, refusal of local merchants and drivers to serve them, and poisoning of the school’s well. People threatened her parents and siblings. Someone tried burning the school down.
It took a mob with metal bars smashing the windows in the middle of the night to finally convince Prudence that the lives of her students were in too much danger. She closed the school and left Connecticut, never to return.
Prudence Crandall married Baptist minister Calvin Philleo in 1834. She was his second wife. They lived for a time in New York, Rhode Island, and finally Illinois. It was not a happy union. He was controlling and abusive and for a time they lived apart around 1870. After her mother, who lived with her, and husband died in 1874, Prudence moved to Elk Falls with her brother, Hezekiah Crandall.
Prudence spent her life teaching and supporting the women’s rights movement. Her home county in Connecticut repented after she left, and strongly supported the abolition cause. The state quietly repealed “Black Law” in 1838. Prudence has been honored many times over in Connecticut, nationwide, and internationally. Women of Glasgow, Scotland, sent an emissary with a silver plaque to honor her in 1834. Her statue was installed in the Connecticut capitol in 2008.
Feature image: Prudence Crandall purchased this 1805 home from the Elisha Payne estate to open her boarding school for girls in 1831. It is now the Prudence Crandall Museum in Canterbury, Connecticut. (Wikimedia Commons)
Larned, Ellen D. (Ellen Douglas). History of Windham County, Connecticut. [Thompson, Conn.] : The author, 1874, pp. 490-502. http://archive.org/details/historywindhamc02larngoog.