Junior docent program to start at Prudence Crandall Museum

By Denise Coffey - Staff Writer
Canterbury - posted Mon., Mar. 18, 2013
Monique Collelo answers questions posed by CPTV producer Lizzie Warren at the Prudence Crandall Museum. Photos by D. Coffey.
Monique Collelo answers questions posed by CPTV producer Lizzie Warren at the Prudence Crandall Museum. Photos by D. Coffey.

Eighth-grade student Monique Collelo and four other students from the Dr. Helen Baldwin Middle School in Canterbury had some time in the spotlight on March 15. They were being interviewed by a crew from Connecticut Public Television about the Prudence Crandall Museum, where they volunteer. The television crew was filming a four-minute piece on the historic school that will run on CPTV in the spring.

Collelo has been a volunteer at the museum for two years, serving at tea ceremonies and participating in Old Home Day, Prudence Crandall celebrations and parades. Museum Curator Kazimiera Kozlowski hopes that Collelo – and the other student volunteers - might continue their work with the museum in a junior docent capacity. Such a program would bring in young volunteers and groom them to be tour guides. Kozlowski envisions the junior docents working with the public and having a strong grasp of the story behind the Prudence Crandall Museum.

Crandall had set up a private school for young white girls in 1831. When a 19-year-old black woman asked Crandall to teach her, and Crandall accepted, it set in motion a tumultuous reaction from the town. Sarah Harris was that young woman. A town resident, she wanted to learn just enough so that she could teach young black girls in the community. But she knew that her asking would put Crandall in a tough spot. "If it would cause you harm, I'll withdraw the request," Harris told Crandall.

Crandall took time to make a decision. Her school had developed a reputation as a superior school in a short amount of time. She was a Quaker. She didn't believe in slavery. But she knew there would be ramifications if she took on Harris as a student. Eventually, she decided to let Harris join the ranks of the white students in the school. “Who am I to deny you an education?” she told Harris.

Parents of the white students started withdrawing them from the school.  With the operation short on cash, Crandall tried to remake her school into one serving “young ladies and little misses of color.” She was successful, drawing in students from Boston, Providence, New York and Philadelphia. But her troubles with the community grew. She and her students faced intimidation and threats. A law was passed, making it illegal to teach blacks in the state. Crandall was briefly jailed.

“As far as we know, there were 22 African-American students here,” Kozlowski said. “There may have been more. They were 10 years old up to 19 years old. Imagine being a young African-American student in the middle of this controversy?”

The point isn't lost on Collelo, who is 14 years old. The museum is a reminder of the cost Crandall paid when she stood up for herself and others, Collelo said. “It's the Prudence Crandall Museum,” Kozlowski added, “but the without Sarah Harris, there is no museum. The more we learn about her, the more we see what a strong woman she was. She had to have been raised by parents who were socially active and progressive thinking to even make the request to attend school.”

When Collelo volunteers, she is surrounded by reminders of that long-ago struggle when two young women – one white and one black - faced a daunting task. That they took on that challenge is encouraging to Collelo. “It's about staying strong and standing up for yourself and others,” she said. Her volunteer work has given her a chance to interact with the community at large, but it's also helped her with understanding a crucial piece of American - and Connecticut - history. “It's amazing how strong some women were back then,” she said. “It makes you realize we can be strong now, too.”

For more information on the junior docent program, contact Museum Curator Kazimiera Kozlowski at 860-546-7800 ext. 8.

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