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Mitchell, E. (2006). The Means of Knowledge:  Age and Agency in the Canterbury Academy Struggle. PHILICA.COM Article number 53.

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The Means of Knowledge: Age and Agency in the Canterbury Academy Struggle

Ethan Mitchellconfirmed userThis person has donated to Philica (Independent Researcher)

Published in edu.philica.com

Between 1833 and 1834, the Canterbury Academy in Connecticut struggled to provide a secondary education for black girls in the face of escalating legal attacks, economic boycotts, and violence. Historians have generally Prudence Crandall, the founder of the school, as the agent in this struggle. This paper explores the role of the students themselves in initiating, maintaining, and choosing to end the Academy.

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The Means of Knowledge:  Age and Agency in the Canterbury Academy Struggle 

“On October 1, 1995, by an act of the General Assembly, Prudence Crandall became Connecticut's State Heroine. In 1833, Prudence Crandall established the first academy for African-American women in New England. During its 18 months of operation, Crandall and her students faced hardships and violence. She was placed on trial twice for breaking a law specifically designed to prevent the school from operating. In the fall of 1834, although the charges against her were dismissed, the school was closed. Prudence Crandall demonstrated great courage and moral strength by taking a stand against prejudice….”{1}


The above passage, found on a Connecticut Government website, is typical, if succinct, biography of the Quaker educator Prudence Crandall. Such a text is also, commonly, the history of the institution, for Prudence Crandall and Miss Crandall’s Academy are essentially interchangeable topics for most authors. Finally, it is an example of an entire genus: from the 1830s to the 1850s, the creation of secondary schools for black youth, or for all races, was a major concern and tactic of the abolitionist movements, and met with substantial violence. The Noyes Academy in Canaan, New Hampshire was physically dragged into a swamp by oxen{2}. Myrtilla Miner’s school in Washington was partially burned down, John Fee’s school in Cummins, Kentucky was wholly burned down; and so forth. Miss Crandall’s academy is the first example, and probably the best documented of this type.

A common theme in the histories of this era has been a focus on the role of the heroic teacher, the teacher-as-revolutionary-martyr; Wormley’s paper is an excellent example. This hero-figure is assisted by the larger abolitionist community, and, more or less in the background, by their brave and loyal students, and presumably the student’s families and their community.

While I do not doubt that teachers like Crandall and Miner were individuals of remarkable courage and personal integrity, I hope to question whether or not we should ascribe sole agency to them. To maintain any organization in the face of active hostility requires a very delicate balance of internal priorities. When the organization’s participants include such large power differentials as a school—let alone a school for an enslaved race in a slave society—these internal negotiations become even more complex. Taking a heroic stand for the freedom of education is, clearly, immaterial if the students or their parents refuse to cooperate with it.

In the case of Miss Crandall’s academy, we have the fairly rare opportunity to look directly at what are—or might be—some of the opinions of the students themselves. Moreover, we have enough background information about the events in Canterbury, Connecticut to sketch a more detailed picture of the people behind and around Miss Crandall herself.


Brief History

In 1832, Prudence Crandall, a Quaker, (1803-1890) opened a girl’s school in Canterbury, Connecticut, catering to upper class white families{3}. The school was a great success, allowing her to purchase the physical plant free and clear. Later that year, Crandall admitted Sarah Harris (1812-1878), a young black woman who already had some educational background, and wished to complete her schooling so that she could become a teacher. Crandall’s white students were quickly pulled out of the academy by their families, in protest of this desegregation. The prominent opponents of Crandall in Canterbury were “colonizationists;” they wished to see the black population expatriated to Liberia or elsewhere in Africa, and they portrayed Crandall as an “amalgamationist” who wished for the two races to mix. Thus the controversy that ensued was not pitting abolitionists against pro-slavery forces. Rather, it was a conflict between two groups of white people, each of whom professed—and doubtless believed—that they were working in the best interest of blacks.

The school closed briefly, and Crandall re-opened it as a school for “young ladies and little misses of color.”{4} She contacted William Lloyd Garrison: pacifist, feminist, abolitionist, and indefatigable newspaper publisher. With his assistance, Crandall went on a whirlwind tour, attracting new students, and young black women came to attend the re-opened Canterbury Academy from as far away as Boston and Philadelphia.

This was intolerable to the white community in Canterbury, who vandalized and boycotted the school and increasingly harassed and assaulted the students. The town refused to sell Crandall anything, including food, water, or medicine, and refused to employ people who visited the school. The school’s well was filled with manure, so they had to transport drinking water from outside of town, and on several occasions the windows were broken and the building was set on fire.

Connecticut quickly passed a law (“the Black law”) effectively outlawing the academy, at least insofar as the out-of-state boarding students were concerned. Cranall was taken to court three times, and imprisoned overnight, keeping the school open throughout. The state’s case was dismissed in July of 1834. That September, just after Crandall married one Calvin Philleo, the Academy was attacked in the night “by a number of lawless persons with heavy clubs an iron bars” who smashed in the windows. A decision was made to, in Garrison’s words: “abandon the school in that heathenish village, and let ANDREW T. JUDSON and his associates, with the whole state of Connecticut, have all the infamy and guilt which attach to the violent suppression of so praiseworthy an institution. O, tempora! O mores!” Mrs. Philleo left for the West with her groom, and the students returned to their families.

Thus far, this is a history of adults. Now let us turn to the youth.


“Insisting on the favor”—The Canterbury School as a Youth-Initiated Project

One of the questions of culpability raised in Crandall’s legal battles was the degree to which she had actively recruited black students. The state wished to show that she had gone to considerable lengths to attract students, and there is no doubt that this was the case after the school was re-established. But Crandall’s letters—which predate her involvement in the case and so any motive to misrepresent the facts—suggest that at the outset, it was the students who were courting her.

While Crandall was a New England Quaker, and thus in a sense a ‘birthright’ abolitionist, her letters suggest that she had not really developed any strong personal or political ties to abolitionism at the point when she began to teach. When he she moved to Canterbury, her housemaid Marcia, and Marcia’s friend Sarah Harris, began to propagandize Crandall with copies of Garrison’s newspaper The Liberator. Harris’ father, William, was the local agent for the paper.

Crandall writes of Harris visiting her many times, bringing abolitionist literature and always pressing her own case: “Miss Crandall, I want to get a little more learning, enough if possible to teach colored children, and if you will admit me to your school, I shall forever be under the greatest obligation to you. If you think it will be the means of injuring you, I will not insist on the favor.” After considerable hesitation, Crandall decided that “her repeated solicitations were more than I could resist.” At the trial, the prosecution had testimony from Mary Barber that Crandall had taken a more active role in enrolling Harris. But this testimony seems inconsistent with the letters written by Crandall before her motives were under the scrutiny of a court.

These glimpses suggest, if anything, that Crandall was approached by young black women who saw a potentiality in her for themselves, and were actively working to fulfill it. In the passage above, we also see that Harris was clearly aware that some risks were entailed by the course of action they were helping steer towards. Given what follows, though, it seems likely that they did not fully anticipate how great the risks were.


“This little band of persecuted females” – The students as abolitionist tools.

For the predominantly white leadership of the abolitionist movements, the students at the Canterbury academy—and indeed the school itself—were of great symbolic importance. They were also an easily manipulable symbol; it is hard to imagine a group of people in New England who were more politically dependent than young black women, hundreds of miles from their families, enduring a state of physical and legal siege.

The symbolic uses of the students took three forms, which are perhaps somewhat contradictory but, I believe, by no means uncommon in such dynamics. First, abolitionists went to some lengths to vindicate the excellence of Miss Crandall’s school, and to encourage more students to attend. Garrison ran an advertisement for the school every week until it was shut down. “A passer-by” wrote{5}:


The school, when I left it, was composed of 17 girls, as well behaved as any 17 of any color you can find, at any school in the country. The school is locate in a very pleasant little village…the air is salubrious, and the surrounding countryside pleasant. There is not a more interesting group of youth in all Connecticut, than Miss Crandall’s scholars…I spent a Sabbath in company with a godly minister, with this little band of persecuted females; and never did I spend a more profitable Sabbath. Several of their minds are deeply exercised on the subject of religion; and I doubt not God is there by his spirit….I hope the friends of colored people in every plan will urge them to send their daughters to this school. Miss Crandall can accommodate at least 40 girls, and the school ought and must be filled, even to overflowing. There is no danger. The colored people need not fear.


Elsewhere in the same issue, and indeed elsewhere in the same article, it is reported that Crandall had just been arrested and was being held in prison, while physical assaults against the school and students continued. This puts some strain on Passer-By’s claim that “there is no danger.” Certainly the possibilities of rape and murder had crossed the minds of the students and their families. Here, it would seem, the abolitionists’ zeal for a principle and for solidarity with an institution has gotten the better of their risk assessment. It is one thing to believe that a goal is worth the risk; it is something quite different to deny that those risks exist.

The counterpoint to this kind of thinking is expressed by Garrison in a letter to a friend. He wrote “Miss Crandall must be sustained at all hazards,” the hazards, of course, being largely to her students. This suggests a second form of symbolic manipulation: the students as martyrs. A striking example of this occurred early in the school’s history, when the town tried to use an antiquated Pauper and Vagrancy Law against some of the students. This would have forced those students who were not town residents to leave, or pay a fine nearly equal to their tuition, or else be “whipped on the naked body not exceeding ten stripes.” Before a massive bond was posted by abolitionists, obviating the case, a warrant was issued for Eliza Ann Hammond, a 17-year old student. Samuel May—an abolitionist minister and one of the teachers at the school—expressed that “he was eager that she should endure the punishment, even to the stripes, since the treatment would rouse the country against her persecutors.”

Disregarding the question of whether or not martyrology is an effective tactic for social struggle, this kind of politicking must have been enormously disturbing to the students themselves. In a rather close analogy with the slavery that abolitionists opposed, their bodies were being viewed as political tokens by those who were ostensibly their protectors. Hammond must have discovered that her enemies wished to torture her, and that at least some of her supporters hoped that they would get a chance to.

The third major form of symbolic manipulation that I would like to address is ideological continuity between the oppressed group and their supporters. This is a notoriously complex terrain in any solidarity movement, and perhaps never more so than in the American abolition movements. The Quaker and pacifist continigents of the movement were deeply opposed to violence. Especially after the Nat Turner rebellion in 1831, the possibility of a large-scale bloodbath, either black-against-white or North-against-South, became hard to ignore—and indeed, it was ultimately not avoided. The majority of active abolitionists were also pacifists, and were placed in the awkward situation of rejecting revolutionary violence while acknowledging that such violence vindicated their critique. In these philosophical acrobatics, the corroborating voices of blacks were a great prize, as the massive and often dubious literature of “slave narratives” suggests.

The students at Canterbury were approached through abolitionist networks, and so it should not be altogether surprising if they shared many of the same views. In the summer and fall of 1833, The Liberator published a letter and two speeches by the students. The speeches are in the lyceum form popular in that era, and were evidentally delivered as oratories to the other students, probably on a rotational basis. It is, of course, likely that these speeches and the song were created under the editorial supervision of Crandall or May. It is even more likely that the teachers were involved in the selection of which speeches were sent to The Liberator for publication. In spite of these biases, they are almost our only access to the views of the students themselves.

The Students’ Writings

In The Liberator, June 22, 1833

Mr. _______

SIR—Agreeable to your request, I write you, knowing your anxiety for the school here. There are thirteen scholars now in the school. The Canterburians are savage—they will not sell to Miss Crandall an article at their shops. My ride from Hartford to Brooklyn was very unpleasant, being made up of blackguards. I came on foot here from Brooklyn. But the happiness I enjoy here pays me for all. The place is delightful; all that is wanting to complete the scene is civilized men. Last evening the news reached us that the new law has passed. The bell rang, and a cannon was fired for half an hour. Where is justice? In the midst of all this Miss Crandall is unmoved. When we walk out, horns are blown and pistols fired.


In The Liberator, July 6th, 1833

My dear friends,—It is with painful feelings that I arise to address you, but knowing that you sympathy is deeply wrought with mind, I cannot forbear. It is not until the present time that we have begun to enjoy that which our minds have long desired; viz. the advantages of a good education. But what suddenly overshadows that bright ray which began to beam upon us? It is prejudice—that dark misty cloud, which is born by selfishness and ignorance, in which our fair country is groping its way. From our land Justice seems to have taken her flight. Truth is hovering at a distance, as if afraid that she too should be forever hid in this dark chaos of deadly influence. Our ministers preach it, (no doubt through ignorance,) our lawyers plead it, our good men, our best men are frequently drawn to walk within its shade. But duty with her constant appeals, approaches them, and in low whispers incessantly exclaims, ‘art thou willing that this cloud should overshadow thee? Hast thou forgotten my command? Go tell the people that pride is coiling round their hearts, and strewing flowers in their way that are wet with drops from the cloud of prejudice; these the youth are sipping,—their tender hearts are growing cold and hardened,—the path in which they walk is laid across human beings, and they are crushing them to the earth, beings like themselves, guilty of no other crime than wearing a complexion, ‘not colored like their own.’ My friends, I need not say we are the people of whom Duty speaks. By our own feelings, we too well know the oppression we bear, we know that many among whom we dwell, have ever endeavored to debar us from every ray of light that would to tend to show us that we possess equal rights and privileges with the whites. Neither have I need to say that those who thus oppress us our children of our common father,—for they, like us, bear the impress of the Deity. To the rejoicing of our hearts, a few have obeyed the voices, and stepped from within the shadow of prejudice, and are now pleading our cause, in the midst of persecution, with great success.


Take courage then, the prayers of our forefathers have reached the ears of Him who is able to dispel every shade of moral darkness that surrounds us. If the unrighteous law which has lately been made in this state compels us to be separated, let us submit to it, my dear associates, with no other feelings towards those that so deal with us, than love and pity. Being an inhabitant of the state, I am not yet compelled to leave, but my feelings are inexpressible at the thought that you will be obliged to do so; and that too, just at the commencement of pleasure which showed itself in every apartment of our abode. Love and union seems to bind our little circle in the bonds of sisterly affection. I trust the means of knowledge will yet be ours, and if we are compelled to separate, let us, adorned with virtue and modesty, earnestly and diligently pursue every thing that will bring respect to ourselves, and honor to our friends who labor so much for our welfare.



August 3rd, 1833


MY DEAR FRIENDS,—It is very necessary that we all have the principle of forgiveness instilled into our hearts. We should always be careful that a spirit of retaliation does not get a seat in our affections, for how very unpleasant it is to feel envious towards our fellow creatures, to have our angry feelings excited in such a manner as to think if every thing does not pass along pleasantly with us we must be in a disturbed state of mind. If, on the contrary, we cherish a spirit of forgiveness, the world and all around us will assume a very different aspect. If any one has wronged us, let us in the spirit of meekness obey that injunction of our dear Saviour—‘Bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you and persecute you.’


We as a body, my dear school-mates, are subject to many trials and struggles, and we all know to what they are attributable—it is the prejudice the whites have against us that causes us to labor under so many disadvantages. They are so prejudiced against us that they will not suffer us to come up and be sharers in any of their privileges. Oh, prejudice! prejudice!—Heaven grant thy reign may be short. My friends, although the white people may be so enraged against us as to try to break down every benevolent effort that is made in our behalf, and put every obstacle they can in our way to prevent our rising to an equal [….] us be careful that we do not return evil for evil, but recompense it with good, for saith the scriptures—‘If thine enemy thirst give him drink, if he hunger feed him, for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head.’ Soft words turn away wrath. And you are aware that ever since we have been under Miss Crandall’s instructions, it has been her utmost core to persuade us not to indulge in angry feelings towards out enemies—with unceasing and untiring earnestness has she plead with us to forgive them—and now let us try with her to abide by her counsel, and feel at peace with all men; for we all know that this is the spirit of the Christian, and this we must possess to support us through the trials we are called to pass in this life. Yes, the hope of a Christian—it is this that has supported our teacher amidst her trials, and when confined in this country prison, she could bear the bitter cup of persecution with patience and resignation.


There is no condition in life to which we may be subject but that religion will support us—it will be a comforting solace as we journey through this world, and will sustain us in the dying hour. Seeing, then, the spirit of forgiveness is attended with so many sweets, let us therefore so possess this spirit, that when we have done with all things here below, and this mortal shall put on immortality, and soul shall wing its way into the world unknown, the plaudit may be welcome—‘well done thou good and faithful servant, enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.’ Yes, let the motto—forgive, forgive—be engraven on every heart, an let this principle of moral excellence be established throughout this wide earth, till all shall be forgiven both in this, and in that world

‘Where all the just surround the throne,

Both white and sable too,

And there partake the feast prepared

For Gentile and for Jew.





These texts give as a small and ornate window into the experience of the students, but it is a window, all the same. They are permeated with the themes of Christianity and pacifism, as we might expect from a group of students, and particular writings, selected by Christians and Garrisonians. There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of those sentiments. But we can see an edge to them. Nowhere, for example, do these authors pass into the Christian rhetorical device of saying that they, too, are sinners like their oppressors, or that their shared fallen-ness precludes their passing judgment on others. The authors are quite clear about the who is at fault, and enumerate ministers, lawyers, and “good men” among that number.

Again, the author of the August 3rd speech, in speaking of forgiveness, passes from the beatitudes to their harsher precursor in Proverbs 25. When she returns to Matthew, it is to the parable of the Ten Talents, which is in essence about investing for future gain. Both these choices underline a recognition that forgiveness is a moral weapon as well as a social virtue. These two instrumentalities of non-resistance would be much discussed in the following century, and indeed they still are. To forgive is virtuous, and it can also be used to establish crushing moral superiority.

We cannot know, of course, if the author of the August 3rd speech would have written such an encomium to forgiveness if she knew the school would be destroyed. But it does appear from both speeches that the authors were pessimistic about the outcomes for the school, perhaps more pessimistic than their adult supporters. This may shed some light on the events of September, 1834. The year of 1834, sometimes called the “riot year,” was marked by widespread political violence all over the country{6}. The attack on the school and subsequent abandonment of it was reported quite tersely in the Liberator, which then went on to devote a great deal of space to analyzing Crandall’s now-moot court case. Although it is sometimes described as an onslaught on a par with the Noyes Academy, the attack on September 9th was arguably not the most violent of the many attacks the building had suffered. It was not, for example, set on fire, which had happened on at least two earlier occasions. Something had changed internally.

The most obvious change was that Crandall had married the week before, to a man who apparently was not exceptionally enthusiastic about the school, or about education in general—she would later complain that he forbade her to read his books, and that he opposed her “more than anyone.” It is Philleo, not Crandall, who wrote to the Liberator, and he suggests that he—not Crandall, as is generally reported—made the decision to close the school. This information he communicated, oddly, in an advertisement{7}:


“FOR SALE. The house in Canterbury occupied by the late Prudence Crandall, now the wife of the subscriber. The impunity with which repeated assaults have been made upon these premises, has awakened the apprehension that the property and perhaps the lives of those connected with the school are insecure. I have therefore thought it proper, and do hereby advertise the house and appurtenances for sale….CALVIN PHILLEO.”


However, neither Mr. nor Mrs. Philleo communicated this decision to the students. That job was left to Samuel May, who wrote:


“The pupils are very much intimidated, and the instructors themselves have hardly resolution to go on in opposition to such lawless neighbors. After due consideration, therefore, it was yesterday determined that the school should be suspended. The pupils accordingly will go to their homes as soon as convenient. I was requested to go in to the School, and announce to them our decision—and I have never before felt so sensible of the uncalled for, cruel persecution which has been carried on in this New England village against a family of defenceless females. Twenty harmless girls, whose only offense against the peace of the community is that they have come together there to obtain useful knowledge, were to be told that they had better go away, because forsooth the house in which they dwell is not protected by the conservators of the peace, the officers of justice, in the community in which it is situated. My heart glowed with indignation. I felt ashamed of Canterbury, ashamed of Connecticut, ashamed of my Country.”


In May’s description, then, the adults still have some resolve to continue the school, but they are sensitive to the fact that the students are terrorized. This is plausible, but it does not accord well with the impression that Philleo made the decision, and had no desire to live under siege. Again, the fact that May and not (the former) Crandall broke the news to the students might suggest a sense of betrayal between the students and their beloved teacher. Any adult closing the school would likely have portrayed their motive as a concern for the students’ safety, regardless of how the students themselves felt. All that we can say with certainty is that the decision to close the Canterbury school involved the interwoven emotions of at least three adults and the students, and cannot be wholly laid at the feet of any one person.

Finally, I would like to point out the students’ optimism around the aftermath of this project. For May, and for the abolitionists in general, the closure was apocalyptic: it was the destruction of a hopeful symbol that, as Garrison had said, had to be protected at all hazards. May also seems to have viewed it as the terminus of the young women’s education. They had “come together there to obtain useful knowledge,” and were “told that they had better go away.” The students’ writing certainly describes a great love for the school and their classmates, and the loss of the school was no doubt devastating. Yet we also hear a hope or recognition that learning will continue after the school is doomed.

The unknown author of the July 6th speech is clearly interested in the political and intellectual formation of the young. We can well imagine that she and her schoolmates, as the protagonists in an educational struggle, had ample reason to reflect on these themes. Facing the destruction of the school, by mandate or by a mob, she writes “I trust the means of knowledge will yet be ours.” That is the definitional trust, and motive, of a struggle which continues to this day, and is defined in terms of the student’s own aspirations and agency.





{1} State of Connecticut (2002).



{2} Funke (1920)


{3} Unless otherwise cited, historical details are taken from Small and Small (1944), who bases them, in turn, largely on Wormley (1923).

{4} Advertisement in The Liberator, throughout this period.

{5} The Liberator, July 6, 1833

{6} Prince (1985)

{7} The Liberator, September 20, 1834


Funke, Loretta (1920 ‘The Negro in Education.’ The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 5, No. 1.

Prince, Carl E. (1985) ‘The Great "Riot Year": Jacksonian Democracy and Patterns of Violence in 1834.’ Journal of the Early Republic, Vol. 5, No. 1. Spring.


Small, Miriam R., and Edwin W. Small. (1944) Prudence Crandall Champion of Negro Eduction. The New England Quarterly. Vol. 17, No. 4

State of Connecticut (2002) The State Heroine, Prudence Crandall. http://www.ct.gov/ctportal/cwp, accessed Nov 11, 2006.

Wormley, G. Smith (1923) ‘Prudence Crandall.’ The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 8, No. 1.

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Mitchell, E. (2006). The Means of Knowledge: Age and Agency in the Canterbury Academy Struggle. PHILICA.COM Article number 53.

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