The contradictory practice of working for black freedom while oppressing free blacks is clearly illustrated by two cases, one involving Prudence Crandall’s attempt to establish a school for black girls in Connecticut and the other involving a group of kidnapped blacks on the ship
Prudence Crandall was arrested on the morning of June 27, 1833 for harboring and boarding, for the purpose of educating, black girls who were not inhabitants of the state of Connecticut. Crandall was intentionally defying a statute which had been passed by the legislature four weeks earlier at the instigation of the citizens of Canterbury, Connecticut.
The law in part read:.
Whereas, attempts have been made to establish literary institutions in this state, for the instruction of colored persons belonging to other states and countries, which would tend to the great increase of the colored population of the state, and thereby to the injury of the people: Therefore, Sec. 1. Be it enacted by the General Assembly convened, that no person shall set up or establish in this state any school, academy, or other literary institution for the instruction or education of colored persons, who are not inhabitants of this state, nor instruct or teach . . . or harbor or board . . . any person who is not an inhabitant of this state without the consent in writing, first obtained of a majority of the civil authority, and also of the select-men . . .”
In order to force the situation, Prudence asked her friends not to post bail. She felt that it might help her cause more by embarrassing town officials who would feel less than satisfied with putting a woman in a jail cell, especially one last occupied by a convicted murderer. Prudence spent the night in jail, and the next day bond was posted.
The crisis that Prudence Crandall faced in 1833 had begun quite innocuously in the autumn of 1831 when Prudence Crandall started a school in Canterbury for the daughters of Canterbury’s white prominent citizens. Town leaders established credit at the local stores for the school, arranged for wood for heat and cooking, and helped finance the mortgage for the school in a fine home on the southwest corner of the green.
The school was successful and popular and a source of pride to the town fathers. However, in September, 1832 Sarah Harris, a seventeen year old black girl, asked for admission to the school. Prudence was torn. She knew that the towns people would never consent to educate their daughters alongside black girls. There would be either tremendous resistance to the black girl’s entrance, or the school would be closed. On the other hand, her Quaker upbringing had made Crandall aware of mistreatment of blacks. This situation could provide a marvelous opportunity to alleviate a sorry social problem. After much agonizing soul searching, Crandall made her decision. She would accept the Harris girl.
The reaction of the townspeople was immediate and negative. As she had expected, the white families threatened to remove their daughters if a black girl was admitted. At least one townsperson feared that an interracial school would only encourage “leveling principles” which would eventually result in intermarriage between whites and blacks. Prudence’s brusque reply, “Moses had a black wife” did very little to allay fears or help her cause.
The leading townspeople in opposition to the school were Daniel Frost, Rufus Adams, Dr. Andrew Harris, R.Fenner, and Andrew T. Judson. They feared that “the black bourgeoisie of the entire nation would flood the little country village with hundreds of black, brown, and beige young females who would crown the church, promenade the lanes, frequent the stores, and inveigle the flower of Canterbury youth into miscegenetic relationships. The village would become uninhabitable, real estate values would collapse, and black blight would spread from town to town all across the state.”
The most active antagonist in the situation proved to be Canterbury’s leading politician, Andrew T. Judson. His initial strategy would be to use the state’s old pauper law, a device by which poor transients were warned to leave town or face serious punishment, usually whipping. If that failed, he would use his influence to have the legislature pass a law which would end the school.
Although Prudence enjoyed little support in the town, she was not on her own. Samuel May and George Benson of nearby Brooklyn provided great help. Most influential, however, was William Lloyd Garrison who enlisted the support of many important abolitionists such as Arnold Buffum and Arthur Tappan. They provided moral and financial assistance greatly needed by Prudence in the crisis. This outside support was used against Prudence by her enemies who claimed that she was being unwittingly used as a pawn by Garrison and abolitionists to further their cause.
On May 24, 1833 the Connecticut “Black Law” was signed by Governor Edwards. On June 27, 1833 Prudence and her sister Almira were arraigned. The case would begin on August 23, 1833 and come before three different courts by July 24, 1834.
The presiding judge in the Windham County Court on August 23 was Joseph Eaton who had not only been a member of the legislature that passed the Crandall law, but was also one of the committee members who wrote it. Andrew T. Judson, Jonathon Welch, and Ichabod Bulkley appeared as counsel for the state. Judson claimed that blacks were not citizens in states where they were not enfranchised. The defense attorneys, William W. Ellsworth, Calvin Goddard, and Henry Strong, claimed that the law conflicted with Article IV, section 2 of the United States Constitution which grants citizens of one state equal rights in others. Not surprisingly Judge Eaton charged the jury that the law was constitutional. However, very surprisingly, the jury, after deliberating was deadlocked, seven for conviction and five for acquittal. Eaton declared a hung jury and dismissed them. The case would automatically come before a new jury in December.
Judson and the prosecution did not wait for a new trial in December. In an extremely rare move, Judson had an entirely new case brought before Superior Court in October. It happens rarely, if ever, that a case is brought before the Superior Court while it is still being resolved by the County Court.
Judge Daggett of the Superior Court charged the jury saying that it would be a perversion of the term citizen to include slaves, free blacks and Indians as citizens of the United States. The jury agreed and gave a verdict against Prudence Crandall.
Defense counsel appealed to the Supreme Court of Errors. The case was heard in July 1834 and this time the court dismissed it on a technicality. Although Crandall and her supporters were happy with the verdict, they were disappointed that the court had failed to rule on the constitutional question, that of black citizenship. That issue would be decided in the Dred Scott case in 1857 in which Roger Taney declared that blacks were not citizens. Taney cited Daggett’s ruling as a precedent in writing the decision.
The problem did not end for Prudence and her school. Courts can make decisions but they can’t necessarily change feelings. Animal dung was thrown into the school well, and neighbors refused to give water to the girls. Groups of boys followed Prudence and the girls around town beating drums and making noise.
Combustible materials were stuffed in a corner of the house in an attempt to burn it down.
The final blow came on September 9 when a group of men attacked the house with iron bars and clubs. They smashed the sides of the house and the doors, destroyed five window sashes and shattered ninety panes of glass. Prudence then sent the girls home and closed the school.