While this ca. 1805 Federal estate was built for Elisha Payne, a businessman and later well-known politician around New England. In 1831, the home was acquired by Prudence Crandall (1803-1890) who both lived in and ran an all-girls school out of the large mansion. Originally serving as a teacher for Canterbury’s wealthy families, she eventually hired Sarah Harris a Black woman, who had lived nearby and wished to become a teacher herself. Local white parents were outraged, urging Crandall to expel Harris. She refused. When white parents withdrew their children, Crandall transformed her boarding school into one for African American girls. That, too, met with hostility from local white men who feared that it would draw more African Americans into their community and would lead to interracial marriage.
Admission to the new boarding school rose to 24 in the first few years. Both Crandall as well as her students endured harassment; shopkeepers refused to sell them food, the building was pelted with stones and eggs, and, in January 1934, the townspeople unsuccessfully attempted to set the school on fire. When Crandall continued undaunted, the Canterbury legislature passed its 1833 “Black Law” (repealed in 1838), making it illegal to run a school teaching African American students from a state other than Connecticut. Crandall was arrested and jailed. Her first trial ended in a hung jury; the second trial resulted in her conviction, which was overturned by a higher court. On the night of September 9, 1834, an angry mob broke most of the school’s windows and smashed furniture. Fearing for her students’ safety, Crandall finally closed the school.
Prudence later married Calvin Philleo, a Baptist minister and abolitionist and they moved to Illinois. After she left Connecticut, and after the American Civil War, Connecticut Legislature and Windham County voted in favor of Black education and black suffrage, eventually sending Prudence a pension for her work while she lived in the state. As a white woman of wealth, Prudence Crandall broke all norms and gender barriers to provide what all would say is a basic human right, education to all. She believed that black girls were worthy of decent education, and she risked her life to provide it. The former school building and home is operated today as the Prudence Crandall Museum.