John Coburn House // 1844

Located on Beacon Hill, this house, built in 1843 some of the richest history. The home was built for John P. Coburn (1811–1873), a 19th-century African-American abolitionist, civil rights activist, tailor and clothier, and was one of the wealthiest African Americans in Boston of his time. This house is believed to have been the last commission of renowned architect Asher Benjamin and is an excellent example of a brick Greek Revival townhouse in Boston. Coburn sold cashmere clothing, doeskins, tweeds and vestings in two shops in downtown Boston, the area which was razed in the 1960s with Urban Renewal. Limited evidence suggests that Coburn may have ran a gaming house for wealthy Bostonians in his house; however, his community activism is far better documented.Coburn served as the treasurer of the New England Freedom Association, an organization dedicated to assisting freedom seekers who escaped slavery and came to Boston on the Underground Railroad. Formed in the early 1840s, this group sought “to extend a helping hand to all who may bid adieu to whips and chains, and by the welcome light of the North Star, reach a haven where they can be protected from the grasp of the man-stealer.” In 1854, after the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act , Coburn founded the Massasoit Guards, a black military company, to police Beacon Hill and protect residents from slave catchers. He served as the company’s captain. Coburn died in 1873 and left most of his belongings to his son Wendell Coburn, including the family home. The house is privately owned today and is a stop on Boston’s Black Heritage Trail.

Prudence Crandall House // 1805

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.