New England Literary News

Teacher fought for civil rights in 19th century

Louisa Catherine Adams is now recognized as a great asset to the career of husband, John Quincy Adams.
Louisa Catherine Adams is now recognized as a great asset to the career of husband, John Quincy Adams.

Teacher fought for civil rights in 19th century

Prudence Crandall was an enterprising teacher who in 1831 founded a private girls’ school in Canterbury, Conn. It did well until she admitted a black student two years later.

White parents immediately withdrew their daughters. Changing course, she decided to operate the school exclusively for black girls, admitting the daughters of wealthy minority families from throughout New England.

The plan was met with outrage from white citizens. In an attempt to shut down the school, the state Legislature passed the “Black Law,” making it illegal to operate a school for nonresident blacks. Crandall was arrested and spent a night in jail.


Donald E. Williams Jr., a Connecticut state senator, chronicles these events and more in his new book, “Prudence Crandall’s Legacy: The Fight for Equality in the 1830s, Dred Scott, and Brown v. Board of Education” (Wesleyan).

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The case against Crandall, whom Williams heralds as an early civil rights leader, was dismissed on a legal technicality, but the arguments would play a role in other landmark rulings.

After the proceedings, her opponents didn’t let up. They attacked her house (now a museum and National Historic Landmark), poisoned the school’s well water, and tried to burn down the school. Crandall fled to Illinois.

For the last four years of her life, the Connecticut Legislature granted her a small pension in recognition of its dishonorable attempt to put her out of business.

Portrait of a First Lady

Louisa Adams, wife of John Quincy Adams, the nation’s sixth president, at times had a testy relationship with Abigail Adams, her formidable mother-in-law. Yet Louisa, the only first lady born outside the United States, quickly learned she could make her mother-in-law happy by feeding her news and gossip from the political scene.


Born in London and raised in England and France, Louisa became so ill when she moved to Quincy that she nearly died. She is now recognized as a great asset to her husband’s career as a politician and diplomat. She was a gracious hostess, fluent in French, and had experience in the royal courts of Britain, Russia, and Prussia.

It was a portrait of Louisa hanging in the Old House, the Adams family homestead in Quincy, that 30 years ago drew the interest of independent scholar Margery M. Heffron, author of “Louisa Catherine: The Other Mrs. Adams” (Yale University). (Heffron herself is a remarkable story. After being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, she worked on the book for another two years before succumbing to the disease. Friends and relatives completed her manuscript.)

Golden Rose winner to read

Jean Valentine, this year’s winner of the New England Poetry Club’s Golden Rose Award, will read from her work at 3 p.m. July 27 at the Longfellow House -Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site in Cambridge. Valentine’s “Door in the Mountain: New and Collected Poems 1965–2003” (Wesleyan) won the 2004 National Book Award for Poetry. On Aug. 10, “Poetry of Purpose,” featuring Afaa Michael Weaver and Fred Marchant, will close the poetry club’s summer series.

Coming out

 “A Perfect Life” by Danielle Steel (Delacorte)

 “Michelangelo: A Life in Six Masterpieces” by Miles J. Unger (Simon & Schuster)


 “Travels with Casey: My Journey Through Our Dog-Crazy Country” by Benoit Denizet-Lewis (Simon & Schuster)

Pick of the week

Paige Mushaw of Northshire Bookstore in Manchester Center, Vt., recommends “Landline” by Rainbow Rowell (St. Martin’s): “Georgie McCool’s professional dreams are coming true, and she couldn’t be happier, except that it means the implosion of her marriage is about to speed up. Her memories of better times almost become reality when she discovers that her mother’s landline can connect her with Neal in 1998, before he proposed. This novel is an honest and often hilarious look at the choices that must be made when dreams aren’t enough.”

Jan Gardner’s can be reached at