A Champion for Equality

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.

 Prudence Crandall’s supporters commissioned Francis Alexander to paint this portrait of her in 1834 in Boston. The Bostonian abolitionists feted her during her stay to sit for the artist. (Wikimedia Commons)

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.

The ad that ran in The Liberator to promote Prudence’s school for “young Ladies and little Misses of color,” in February and March 1833. (Wikimedia Commons)

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.)

Arthur Tappan, one of Prudence’s well-connected and wealthy supporters. (Wikimedia Commons)

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.

Roadside historic marker honoring Prudence Crandall, along U.S. Hwy 160 in Elk Falls, Kansas. Prudence spent her later years in Elk Falls, until her death in January 1890. (E. Lyon 2012)

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.





39 thoughts on “A Champion for Equality

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  1. Oh my. She was tough as nails! What an incredible person to have in your family tree and one certainty to admire and look up to.

    I do have to wonder what the female companion thought of her night in jail given that she hadn’t done anything wrong.

    The story of the school reads like a movie plot.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Yanno, the strength and perseverance of Prudence and people like her can be marveled at but not completely understood all this time later. What she was up against, my God, and she stuck to her beliefs and principles even though she could have lost everything.Wow.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You are right about all that Marc. She endured the anger of an entire community. It’s difficult to imagine how people could do such hateful things. But we see it today sometimes, too. It just tends to happen more online than in the real world.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Someone included that on the Wikipedia article and I added it for you! If you reach me through my Contact page, I’ll email you the newspaper article about it.

        All around the world people deprive others of their human rights because of their skin color, religion, sexuality, language, culture. It’s all inexcusable.


  3. That’s a wonderful heritage you have thru Prudence!

    Your post caught my attention when you mentioned the book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I’ve read claims that the book’s setting was the plantation of Thomas Kennedy in Garrard County, Kentucky.

    Then I read the name, Prudence Crandall, and had to keep reading to see not only what she accomplished but also to see whether we are related. While my Crandall line needs a lot more work and documentation, it is believed that it goes back to Elder John Crandall. If so, Elder John would be our common ancestor.

    Again, a great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, Elder John Crandall is my ancestor. We might even have a more recent Crandall ancestor in common! There are many, many descendants out there. I’ve come across others through the blogosphere.


  4. Thank you for sharing her story! We don’t hear enough “herstory” about everyday women who stood on their principals, and made a difference. She was very brave. I wonder what happened to the girls who attended her school. Were their lives improved? How did they use that education?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Unfortunately, the school didn’t last long enough. Hopefully the girls learned enough to take control of their education on their own, or found other teachers to mentor them – in more hospitable places.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Prudence had it going on and is yet another example of a foremother who lead the way helping the less fortunate among us. So many of these women were scattered around this country, doing their best to bring progress. We all have benefitted from them, but maybe forget they existed.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for that very thoughtful statement, Ally. So many important women are either forgotten or just not mentioned in classrooms and elsewhere. We are definitely benefiting from the dedication, hard work, and suffering of activists who have gone before us.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Prudence was quite extraordinary and someone we should really be reading about as to the important participation by some women in the history of this country. That was quite an ad that you featured from “The Liberator”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. She really was (and is) an exemplary role model. I need to learn more about her life in Illinois and what she did in the women’s movement. That seems quite downplayed compared to her integrated school.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You would think it would be easy to find Eilene as to the women’s movement. It seemed I read a lot of articles celebrating the 100th anniversary of women getting the right to vote and the women who helped to make that happen.

        Liked by 1 person

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