Personal courage subject of Prudence Crandall lecture

By Denise Coffey - Staff Writer
Canterbury - posted Mon., Jun. 10, 2013
(L to r) Prudence Crandall Friends President Jo Ann Hauck, Wesley Horton, curator Kazimiera Kozlowsk, state Sen. Don Williams, and state Rep. Brian Sears (D-47). Photos by D. Coffey.
(L to r) Prudence Crandall Friends President Jo Ann Hauck, Wesley Horton, curator Kazimiera Kozlowsk, state Sen. Don Williams, and state Rep. Brian Sears (D-47). Photos by D. Coffey.

History came alive once again in Canterbury on June 8 with the final talk in the Prudence Crandall Lecture Series. Appellate lawyer Wesley Horton brought his talents to bear on the legacy of the 28-year-old school teacher who moved the state and ultimately the nation in the 1830s. Circumstances and her personal courage propelled her into a pivotal role in the country's struggle for equality a full 30 years before the outbreak of the Civil War. Horton's training and experience led him to discover just how far-reaching her attempt to educate blacks stretched into the fabric of the nation.

The school Crandall established for the education of black girls and women was short lived. It grew out of a private academy for white girls established in 1831. After Crandall admitted a 17-year-old black girl, the school lasted for less than two years. Those two years were fraught with struggle. Townspeople rallied against Crandall and her black students.

The Connecticut legislature passed The Black Law, which made it illegal for a school to teach African-Americans from outside of the state. Crandall was arrested, jailed and went to trial. With abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison as counsel, they fought and lost their case. Crandall closed the school and left the state.

On its surface, the episode was a failure for Crandall, African-Americans, the state, and the country. But that small attempt at establishing equality, at teaching young black women how to read and write and do arithmetic, posed a challenge that still exists.

History teacher Bill Powers was in the audience. “I think it's important to honor the courage of people of the past,” he said. “We live among the homes they lived in. It's important not to lose sight that the battle isn't over.”

Horton's presentation was lively and and self-deprecating. “Who has heard about Dred Scott versus Sandford?” he asked. Almost everyone raised a hand. “Who has read the case?” he asked. Only three people raised their hands. “There's not much there to speak of,” he offered.

But when he read the Scott case for research on a book, he was surprised to discover that the Prudence Crandall case was cited in the Dred Scott decision, a sad landmark for the Supreme Court. It found that free blacks were not citizens of the United States. Historians he shared the information with were shocked to find the authority for that proposition came from the Prudence Crandall case.

Horton made no apologies for the nature or shortcomings of his profession. “I read cases,” he said. “That's what appellate lawyers do.” He suggested that Crandall may have gotten poor legal advice. “A lawyer interested in her case might have said, 'Why not move the school to Massachusetts?' if she was just interested in teaching,” he said. The political climate there was more open while Connecticut's was becoming more racist. But when he suggested she may have been duped by her lawyer William Lloyd Garrison, it raised strong disagreement among audience members.

State Sen. Donald Williams (D-29), who has made the study of Crandall a hobby and passion, rose to her defense. He became fascinated with her story and has read as much as he could find on her, including contemporaneous accounts, letters and whatever materials he could find. In his opinion, Crandall knew exactly what she was getting into. And her story is relevant today, he said. “In so many ways, the issues faced by Prudence Crandall we still face today,” he said. 

Powers agreed. “Prudence Crandall and Nathan Hale were teachers,” he said. “They had passion. They gave their lives. Teachers should have that passion for their students.”

His wife Candace nodded her head. “We need to recognize that passion and action are still needed today,” she said.

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