Prudence Crandall was born in Hopkinton, Rhode Island, the daughter of Pardon Crandall, a Quaker farmer and Esther Carpenter, both of whom were descended from prominent old-line South County families. When Prudence was ten she moved to a farm in nearby Canterbury, Connecticut, but returned to Rhode Island from 1825 to 1830 as a student at the New England Friends’ Boarding School (Moses Brown) in Providence. She therefore, was both Rhode Island born and educated.
In 1831, some leading citizens of Canterbury hired Crandall to organize a school for girls. Her Canterbury Female Seminary opened with twenty students and ran smoothly until the fall of 1832, when Sarah Harris, the daughter of a prosperous African-American farmer, sought admission. Sarah’s stated purpose was to become educated to teach children of her own race. Crandall, influenced by her liberal Quaker upbringing and the writings of William Lloyd Garrison, accepted Harris for admission. This act precipitated a controversy of national proportions. When local whites withdrew their daughters, Crandall boldly reorganized the school as a teacher-training institution for young black women. Defying Canterbury officials, who denied her permission for such a facility, Crandall opened her school in April 1833, recruiting students from middle class black families as far away as Providence, Boston, and New York. She persisted despite harassment, boycotts, and threats of violence. The schools windows were broken, its well polluted, and the building nearly set on fire. The Connecticut state legislature passed an infamous “Black Law” in May 1833 forbidding any Connecticut school to admit blacks from outside the state and requiring that black students from outside town limits had to be accepted by the town selectman.
Crandall ignored the law and was arrested in August 1833.The ensuing legal battle eventually resulted in Crandall’s acquittal when the Connecticut Supreme Court reversed her conviction on a technicality without reaching the merits of the case. After that decision, frustrated townsmen set fire to the school to force its closure in September, 1834. This brief but volatile incident was seized upon by abolitionist leaders such as Garrison, Arthur Tappan, Arnold Buffum, and Crandall became a national symbol in their crusade against slavery and racial intolerance.
After this episode Crandall left Connecticut moving first to New York, then to Illinois where her father had migrated, and ultimately to Kansas where she died in 1890 at the age of eighty-six. During her years in the Midwest she occasionally taught school, formed and supported such causes as temperance and women’s suffrage. In 1886, four years before her death, the Connecticut legislature attempted to atone for its misguided legislation of 1833 by voting Prudence a small pension.