A Pre-Civil War Fight for Black Women’s Education in Connecticut [Monday Memo]


Sarah Harris was the oldest daughter of a prominent, free black family of farmers in Norwich, Connecticut. When she requested to attend what was then an all-white girls boarding school in 1832, it catapulted a movement that would advance the fight for access to education for black women in Connecticut.

From Today in CT History:

“In 1831, Prudence Crandall, with the support and approval of the local citizenry, opened the Canterbury Female Boarding School to educate daughters of wealthy Eastern Connecticut families. After a successful inaugural year, Crandall received a request from 20-year-old Sarah Harris, the daughter of a prosperous free African-American farmer and his wife, to attend the boarding school.

Crandall, a single, 29-year-old Quaker, who was an avid reader of William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist newspaper The Liberator, decided to accept Miss Harris into her school. This prompted a severe and instantaneous backlash from her neighbors, who promptly removed both their white daughters and financial support from Crandall’s school, essentially forcing it to close.

Instead of capitulating and denying her prospective student of color admission, Crandall doubled down on her commitment to equal access to female education. She announced that the next school year she would reopen her school, but as an institution exclusively for “little misses of color.” William Lloyd Garrison, who supported Crandall’s decision, ran advertisements for Crandall’s school in The Liberator which garnered national attention. By the start of the school year in 1833, Crandall had no shortage of well-to-do black girls eager to journey to Connecticut to attend her new boarding school.

Meanwhile, however, the now angry Canterbury residents, who had once supported Crandall, agitated for a change in state law that would prevent her from opening her school. In response, the state legislature passed a new “Black Law” in May 1833 expressly forbidding out-of-state black children from attending school in any Connecticut town without first obtaining permission from local authorities.

One month later, on June 27, 1833, Prudence Crandall was arrested after she refused to close her school. This in turn led to several trials, convictions, and appeals. Ultimately, Crandall’s case was dismissed on a technicality, and she refocused her efforts on the African-American girls’ school."

Read the rest of the story here.

Sarah Harris went on to remain an activist and slavery abolitionist as well, moving to New London, CT and eventually Rhode Island. She was a member of a number of anti-slavery movements and kept correspondence with Frederick Douglass. More on Sarah Harris here.

A statue of Sarah Harris and Prudence Crandall currently stands at the State Capitol in Hartford, Connecticut.

Additional media sources for continued learning:

Prudence Crandall Museum | Connecticut Public (YouTube)

Prudence Crandall | Strange Country (comedy podcast)

*Please note this podcast contains strong or obscene language. Story begins at 14:13.

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