May 24, 1833 – Connecticut Legislature Passes the “Black Law” banning out-of-state African Americans from receiving education unless locals approved

Although Northern states abolished slavery, this did not mean they were free of racial prejudice.

In 1831 Prudence Crandall, a well-educated Quaker, opened an academy for girls in Canterbury, Connecticut. The following year she admitted a local black girl, the daughter of a free African-American farmer who lived in the area. White parents protested and withdrew their daughters. Crandall had to close the school, but with abolitionist backing, reopened it as an academy for black girls.

As the New England Historical Society reports, she recruited students with a March 2, 1833 ad in William Lloyd Garrison’s newspaper “The Liberator ,” calling her school “Miss Crandall’s School for Young Ladies and Little Misses of Color.” By April 1, 20 African-American girls from Boston, Providence, New York, Philadelphia and Connecticut arrived at the school.

Prudence Crandall
– Prudence Crandall Museum Collections, Department of Ec. & Community Devt., State of Connecticut

Angry townspeople ostracized Crandall and her students, refusing them admission to their shops as well as access to transportation and medical treatment. They held meetings to figure out how to shut the school down. The Historical Society notes “They also poisoned the school’s well with animal feces and tried to prevent her from getting water elsewhere.”

The Yale University Press blog recounts:

The next year Connecticut enacted a statute allowing local authorities to veto enrollment of out-of-state persons of color. This 1833 ‘Black Law’ came after Wesleyan University had, at the insistence of white students, expelled its only black student, and two years after New Haven barred a college for men of color.”

Richard D. Brown, author of the post, poses the question: “Why was educating a handful of African Americans so objectionable to white people in a state where blacks, at less than 3% of the population, posed no economic or political threat to whites?”

His analysis is instructive:

The answer is negrophobia, racism. The origins of white prejudice were several hundred years old and connected with the non-Christian, ‘savage’ origins of captured sub-Saharan Africans. After the Portuguese and Spanish developed the slave trade, the English and French followed. Anglo-American slavery would embed negrophobia in the minds of North American whites.”

And in fact, the degradation of blacks played a number of self-serving and indeed “necessary” roles for white Americans. It deflected attention from inequalities of class – non-wealthy and/or unsuccessful whites were at least always superior to people of color. It also helped eliminate any guilt over the practice of slavery so necessary to the young country’s economy – if one believed that superior character, intelligence, and other traits were associated with whiteness, one could justify the practice. Of course, allowing blacks to be educated and to achieve could give lie to the myth, so it had to be opposed vigorously.

As for Prudence Crandall, she tried to ignore the Black Law and keep her school going. She was arrested and jailed for one night, and fought legal challenges to her school with the help of wealthy abolitionist Arthur Tappan. The controversy became national news.

On July 22, 1834 she won a court ruling. The townspeople of Canterbury responded by breaking windows. Then on Sept. 9, 1834 a mob attacked the house and tried to burn it down. Crandall closed the school the next day.

That summer, Crandall married the Reverend Calvin Phileo and moved with him out of state. She died in 1890 at the age of 86. Prudence Crandall was named Connecticut’s State Heroine in 1995 for her efforts to establish the first school for African American women in New England.

You can read the full text of the 1833 Black Law here.

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