Education: Page 3

If a white teacher could offer, in what had formerly been a school for white girls, the same courses to black girls, didn’t that undermine the notion of white superiority? Two centuries of slavery had persuaded most whites that blacks were an inherently inferior people. Even in freedom, blacks weren’t the equal of whites, were they?

The trouble started almost as soon as the school opened, and Crandall was tried, twice, for having violated a new law: the “Black Law,” which made it illegal for out-of-state students of color to attend a school without local permission. What really was on trial were the rights of black people as American citizens.

Judge David Daggett of New Haven, an ardent follower of the Colonization movement and its program to return free blacks to Africa, ruled that slaves, free blacks and Indians were not citizens.

Between April 1833 and September 1834, when a mob attacked Crandall’s school, terrifying the teacher, her students and causing great damage, local citizens showed how they felt about black equality. The neighboring doctor refused to treat her students, merchants would not supply the school, the school well was fouled and both adults and children shouted insults at the teacher and her “colored scholars,” as she called them. An organized program of harassment made them virtual prisoners in the school.

“The colored people can never rise from their menial position in our country,” wrote Andrew Judson, a federal judge and the school’s next-door neighbor. “They are an inferior race of beings, and never can or ought to be recognized as the equals of whites.” He opposed both Crandall’s school and the establishment of a school for blacks anywhere in Connecticut.

Prudence Crandall’s school closed after that September attack in 1834. Its violent reception and brief tenure foreshadowed the struggle over rights and citizenship that would later consume a divided nation in civil war.

In the summer of 1835, the Connecticut Courant, as The Hartford Courant was then called, editorialized that abolitionists were doing more harm than good, and that “a spirit of distrust and alienation is awakened between the South and the North; and the Union itself threatened with destruction.” The largest and most influential newspaper in the state argued that abolitionists were, in fact, increasing “the rigors of bondage,” and making the prospect of freedom for America’s enslaved “darker and more hopeless.”

Slavery wasn’t the problem. Talking about it was.