Education: Page 1

In the 1830s, nearly all of Connecticut’s black 8,047 citizens were free, and most of them had been born in freedom. Those who were able or permitted to, bought homes and land. Black community leaders encouraged their people to live industrious, worshipful lives and to educate their children.

The idea of a school for young black women in Canterbury, a town in eastern Connecticut, seems like a natural evolution for a state where the abolitionist movement–a movement that advocated the immediate emancipation of all of the nation’s enslaved–was already gathering adherents. So why, in 1833, did all hell break loose in sylvan Canterbury?

To understand what happened to Baptist schoolteacher Prudence Crandall and her school for “young black misses,” we need to back up for a moment and examine the temper of the times.

The civic status of northern free blacks during the 1830s was not clearly defined. The state’s white citizenry did not, by and large, make black people welcome in their communities. They did not want to work alongside blacks, they did not want their children educated with black children, they did not want black men on juries and the state legislature had already taken away the right of black men to vote.

Despite a nascent abolitionist movement taking root in New England, most whites simply could not imagine an integrated society, with citizens black and white living and working side by side. (Connecticut-born John Brown, who would later hang for his role in trying to stage a slave insurrection, was a notable exception in that regard. He farmed alongside black families in upstate New York, made them welcome at his table and believed that social equality would be part of abolishing slavery.)

But the fear was, as one newspaper at the time suggested, that whites “would be dragged down to the level of the Hottentot.” The deeply entrenched racial prejudice that had begun to manifest itself throughout the largely slavery-free North earlier in the century was around every corner….