Connecticut courage

Here’s a Connecticut heroine no one has heard of–Prudence Crandall.  Yes, she’s in the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame.  Yes, she took an activist stance, before anyone would have done so, perhaps influencing social reform strategies through the next hundred years.  But she is little remembered.

Until now, maybe.  Connecticut State Senator Donald Williams has written a book on her legacy, with the law in particular.  Let’s hope she gets some recognition.

Williams passionately and elegantly told Crandall’s story before a packed house at the New Haven Museum this MLK week, celebrating her as a beacon during the long struggle for equal justice in Connecticut and the United States.  He has turned up a remarkable amount of information, in what he called his “eight year hobby,” which I know first hand isn’t easy to do.  His particular interest is how her story influenced national law before the Civil War and since.

So what is her story?

Crandall came from a wealthy, Quaker family that moved from Rhode Island to Canterbury, Connecticut, where her father Pardon Crandall bought a farm house and taught school.  He believed all his children, including his daughters, should have an education, unusual for his day.  Quaker values of equality and opportunity for all shaped Prudence’s own, further inculcated as she attended a Friends boarding school in Providence.  She went on to teach herself and to become involved in Quaker-supported causes like Temperance.

Her parents helped Crandall buy a house in Canterbury, which she opened as a school for the daughters of the burgeoning middle class.  She had day students and boarders, too, and not as a finishing school, but also teaching math, science, English, history, and art.  The Town Fathers were proud of her accomplishments and delighted by the local economic boom the school created.

Academy opened on the Canterbury Green in 1831

Academy opened on the Canterbury Green in 1831


All was fine.  Remarkable even.  In the 1830s, single women were rare property owners, and married women could not.  Here Crandall was, the Headmistress of her own school, successful enough to have servants and several teachers to help her.  To give you a sense of the times, at the Temperance meetings she attended, only men were allowed to speak.

Mariah Davis was one of her servants, and her friend Sarah Harris and she liked to sit in the back of the classroom and take in the lessons.  Harris then approached Crandall and asked to be a student.  Harris was African American.  She knew she was asking the headmistress for a lot, and Crandall didn’t respond right away.

In the intervening years, Crandall became a Baptist, which in New England were abolitionists.  But despite her beliefs, Crandall also provided the financial support for her sister, and she had a mortgage to pay.  But Harris won her over, after introducing her to the most famous abolitionist newspaper The Liberator, which even published articles by women!  Abolitionists believed in the necessity of education to lift up black men and women.  Harris herself wanted to become a teacher.

Sarah Harris, many years later

Some weeks later, in 1833, Crandall agreed that Harris become a student.  The other students knew Sarah and her family, worshiped with them in the Congregational Church.  They accepted her.  But.  Their parents did not.  Crandall, her father, and her brother were threatened, and white parents tried to bully Harris out of the school.

Crandall had to face a new reality.  If Harris stayed in the school, then all the white girls would withdraw, and the school would fail.  Crandall would not capitulate.  She had never met the publisher of The Liberator William Lloyd Garrison, in Boston, but she wrote him, and he agreed to meet her.  She took a 9-hour stage coach ride up to Boston.

What did she do?  After discussing her plan with Garrison, she kicked out all the white girls and turned her school into an academy for black girls and women.  How did she make this happen?  Garrison’s paper told her story, reaching out to advocates throughout New England and New York to find 20 to 25 families who could afford Crandall’s tuition.

For perspective, in New Haven, abolitionists had already attempted a college for black men, with a proposal shot down by the Connecticut legislature 800 to 4.  Yikes.  Garrison didn’t want a similar failure and suggested that Crandall meet with activists in person.  She met with black ministers and families.  She got their commitments.

In April 1833, the school reopened, and by summer, she was full-up, with black women learning all the arts and sciences.  That’s when the trouble really started.

Threatened, state legislator persecuted and prosecuted Crandall.  The “Black Law” passed through the House and Senate.  It prohibited educating any African Americans from other states, and 85% of Crandall’s students came from outside Connecticut.  As a woman, Crandall was unable to speak out in her defense, and the minister-allies were unsuccessful.  The Governor signed the law which called for criminal penalties and excessive fines–for educating children.

After discussing the risks with other teachers and her family, Crandall committed an act of civil disobedience and kept school open.  She and sister Elmira were arrested.  Elmira was only 20 years old, so she was released.  Crandall was taken to the Brooklyn CT jail.

The Town Fathers were not amused.

Arthur Tappan many years later, in 1870

And Prudence Crandall had made the national news.  A wealthy advocate Arthur Tappan funded her attorney’s fees.  Good thing, because three trials and a trip to the Connecticut Supreme Court were in store.

With her case, attorneys worked together in new collaborative ways.  They made arguments about how the “Black Law” was unconstitutional.

David Daggett, one of the founders of Yale Law School, used political influence to become a judge.  He was also a prominent racist.  In a just-how-things-were way, when his conviction of Crandall was appealed to the state Supreme Court, guess who also was a Justice?  Yep.


David Daggett, 1764-1851

Not wanting to embarrass their colleague, another Justice found a technicality to make the prosecution complaint incomplete.  The case against Crandall would have to be dismissed.

Lest I forget, all the publicity attracted to Crandall the attentions of an evangelical minister, and after a whirlwind in the middle of controversy, they were married.

Crandall continued to operate her school until September 9, 1834.  Then, with her full school of students all asleep, a group of men gathered at midnight armed with wooden clubs and iron bars, and at the signal of a whistle, smashed all the first floor windows.  Remarkably, no one was hurt, but this was the deciding moment.

At that time, there had been race riots Boston and Philadelphia, churches were attacked and organs burned in bonfires, Garrison’s life was threatened–all acts likely by poor whites threatened by the potential of economic competition by freed (much less educated) blacks.

The next morning after the vandalism, Crandall gathered the teachers and agreed that the students needed to be protected.  The school couldn’t guarantee their safety, so they decided to close and send the women home.

This was not the end of Crandall’s story.  She separated from her husband and moved on her own to Illinois, where she opened another school, teaching all races of children out of her house.  She supported abolition, temperance, and women’s suffrage. I asked the Senator if her act of civil disobedience and jail time served as models for these other movement’s strategies.  He thought so.

In the last decade of her life, in the 1870s, Crandall moved to Kansas.  Before the Civil War, Kansas was the site in vicious racial episodes, but now it was considered progressive.  She lived the frontier life, eking out an existence in Elk Falls, now a ghost town.  She only left to nurse her husband at the end of his life.

The Senator traveled to the town to see her gravestone.  Her house had been destroyed by a tornado, but 87 year old Marjorie remembered where the house’s cellar hole was and  helped him find it, still there in a stony field.

He reminded us that the struggle for racial justice was northern as well as southern and sadly, still continues today.  The Crandall case was cited as case law in the awful Dred Scott decision in the 1850s and in the fight against Jim Crow, in Brown v the Board of Education, which also involved Crandall’s last home state of Kansas.

Information about Crandall’s students, both black and white has mostly been lost.  After all, they were only women.  Still, the Senator uncovered that some went on to other academies for further study, and some became activists.  And so I say, let’s study and act for justice, in the name of our fore sisters of courage!

A New Nave

2015-01-14 12.13.50Now that I’m at Yale daily, it’s fun to explore.  Today, I wandered over to Sterling Memorial Library, the main library on campus, to see its newly renovated nave.  Nave.  You know.  That entry way in your home…or medieval cathedral.

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When I last wrote about Sterling, the nave was under scaffolding.  Originally constructed in 1930-1, it needed a serious overhaul for technology and systems and a plain ol’, good, general cleaning.  After a year and twenty million dollars, this meticulous restoration and preservation of the original now reflects the needs of contemporary students.

Period touches remain.  The card catalog.  Today’s students don’t really know what that2015-01-14 12.18.56 is.  But the catalog banks are in place (even as the cards have been archived) because of one tradition:  opening the drawers to various degrees to spell out messages, like ‘Yale’.  I can definitely picture that.  Can’t you?

The ends of the card catalog also hide the environmental controls.  So do the carved stone sculptures on the gallery level.  LED lights, including uplighting that reveals the ceiling, are hidden all through the structure.  Clever!

2015-01-14 12.30.09Every surface was gray from grime and cigarette smoke.  The Indiana limestone was cleaned with a latex peel–apply and peel off the schmutz.  The ceiling involved a 2-step process.  First a magic eraser was used, literally erasing about half the dirt.  Then a wash took off the rest.

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Those are painted panels on wood, and they are loose, laid into the wooden lattice.  Librarian Ken Crilly, our tour guide, said he lifted one by hand while standing on the top level of scaffolding, called the ‘dance floor.’  Being up there is not for the faint-of-heart.  The scaffolding was “springy,” said Ken.  Imagine, too, there’s an attic above that painted ceiling, now with a new catwalk.




The more than 3000 windows are a decorative treasure, considered the finest secular 2015-01-14 12.36.42stained glass collection in the world.  All the leaded glass was designed by G. Owen Bonawit, with each portraying what is going on in that room.  Ken relays a great story.  He works in Room 333, which was reserved for the Asian collections in the 1930s.  Although unknown in the US, Ken jokes he is famous in Japan, from the streams of tourists come to photograph the geisha and samurai warriors shown in the windows.

In the nave, the windows teach local history, just as the windows in medieval cathedrals taught religious stories.  New Haven and Yale history are memorialized.  2015-01-14 12.31.48Depicted are the ministers bringing the books from Yale’s original location in Saybrook, CT to New Haven in 1701, while also including the residents sneaking away with the books that fell off the loaded ox carts.  Then there’s the Colonial-dressed men eating at a table.  Apparently, they represent the Yale undergraduates caught stealing chicken from Mrs. So-and-So.

Gloriously, the nave displays 1930s art faculty member Eugene Savage’s painting on canvas of Alma Mater, as if the Virgin Mary.  Yale’s blue and white just happens to correspond to the traditional colors of the painted Mary, and its motto translates into “Light and Truth,” making for the perfect allegorical figures.  There’s Painting in blue, too, palette in hand.  Perhaps a self-portrait of the artist in medieval garb?

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It’s all there, there in the nave, in seriousness and good fun.  Just what college should be.

A nice place to read

A nice place to read

Caravaggisti Joy

The Calling of Saint Matthew - Caravaggio -

Caravaggio’s The Calling of St Matthew, 1599-1600, with chiaroscuro — contrasting darks and lights

The followers of the Baroque artist Caravaggio were a serious lot.  Dubbed the Caravaggisti, they delved into explorations of deep shadow and the metaphors of light, following the master’s path.  Of course, they mostly lived in the 1600s in Holland and Flanders, as well as Northern Europe.

Georges De La Tour, Magdalen with the Smoking Flame, c. 1640, a Caravaggisti











But you may be surprised to learn we have a Caravaggisti in our midst–Joy Bush.

Caravaggio as Sick Bacchus, 1593



Now showing at the Da Silva Gallery in New Haven, you, too, can immerse in her inky blacks and note the extraordinary color that emerges in the light.  She’s not fascinated by religious iconography or even Caravaggio’s scenes of debauchery.




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No, she’s interested in toys.  Me, too!

She gives them serious names; she treats them seriously.  I’m sure you see the religious significance of this stuffed elephant.

But really.  These photographs are just plain fun.  My kind of Caravaggisti!

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All the angles

Best Video has figured out how to adapt from outmoded technology back into relevance with live music, screenings, readings, lectures, and other heady events, just a short walk from my house.  Today was the kickoff of a lecture/film series about Alfred Hitchcock.

Mark Schenker discussing the historical context for the "Downton Abbey" series at a lecture in the Best Video Performance Space in August, 2014.Mark Schenker, Dean of Academic Affairs of Yale College, provided fascinating insights into how to “read” a Hitchcock film.  We focused on “Notorious,”  watching big chunks of the film, basically with the sound very low, analyzing why he used certain camera angles and shot styles.  Plus the structure of the scenes.

The next time you watch the film, pay attention to the following themes.  Notice how Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman are regularly positioned with him on the left and her on the right.  When that’s not the case, trouble’s brewing.  Are they in the shot together, or does the camera cut back and forth between them, as adversaries?  Are they touching and flor how long, or separated?

Also watch their hair.  Her hair in their first car scene, Notorious 1946.jpgwhich is bookended at the end, is loose, a metaphor for her notorious lifestyle.  His hair is plastered down, unmoving, for his overly buttoned-up temperament.  He is silent, unable to speak, certainly incapable of expressing emotion, which costs the two of them.  Her mode is talking, another symptom of her looseness.  The contrast of silence and talking is a theme among the other characters, as well as for the film, which has long stretches of complete silence, alternating with fast dialogue.

And then there’s the drunkenness.  Bergman’s character is a lush at the beginning, out of despair.  Then, she’s drunk-on-love while sober with Grant, followed by a kind of drunk again when she’s slowly poisoned at the end.  Wine bottles make regular appearances, not only furthering the spy plot, but also to comment on the love affair. Fascinating.

So take a fresh look at an old classic.  You’ll be amazed at how you can deepen your viewing pleasure.