San José

Research on Abolitionist Educator Provides an Early Example of How Education Can Be a Catalyst for Social Change



​​​​San José State Humanities Professor Jennifer Rycenga’s expansive research interests include religion, politics, popular and classical music and lesbian history. An alumna of University of California, Berkeley, and the Graduate Theologian Union, she has taught at SJSU for more than 20 years and coordinates its comparative religious studies program. Co-editor of “The Mary Daly Reader” (NYU Press, 2017), “Queering the Popular Pitch” (Routledge, 2006) and “Frontline Feminisms: Women, War and Resistance” (Routledge, 2001), she is working on a cultural biography of white abolitionist educator Prudence Crandall (1803-1890).

Rycenga first learned of Crandall in 1997, when she visited the Crandall Academy in New England. Crandall opened an academy for women in Canterbury, Connecticut, in 1831. Her school represented one of the strongest early coalitions across lines of difference in American history. Black women and men worked with white women and men to launch and maintain the academy in Canterbury, and they understood the need to protect one another.

“Crandall’s legal team—who, of course, were white men—built an insightful argument for both black citizenship and female citizenship,” said Rycenga. “Their arguments would reappear in the Dred Scott case and Brown v. Board of Education. Part of what I have discovered is the existence of an American antiracist genealogy. To be antiracist means that you embrace the equality of all people and do not seek to blame the victims of prejudice for the prejudice directed against them. Crandall grasped that the problems created by racism were in no way the fault of Black people.” 

Despite facing considerable racist threats from the surrounding community, the academy remained an active school until 1834, when a vicious attack left the building inhabitable. Rycenga’s research demonstrates that, despite such opposition, the students went on to achieve roles of importance in the free Black community, affecting the movements for change that led up to and past the Civil War. “The rock that Crandall threw into the complacency of white society in the north resulted in many generations of Black self-determination and a richer sense of who we can be as a country,” she said.

Crandall’s story highlights the importance of intersecting identities, she said. Black students faced prejudice primarily because of race, but also by virtue of their gender, age, sexuality and class status. Crandall was dismissed by some opponents, then and now, because she was a woman. The academy in Canterbury offered a unique opportunity for Black families to give their daughters an advanced education and the skills necessary to extend education more broadly through the Black community by training them to become teachers. When Rycenga interacts with the many future teachers of California who go through the liberal studies program in SJSU’s humanities department, she is reminded that their wonderful diversity, across race, language, gender, sexuality and religion, reflects Crandall’s legacy.

​ “History is the place where the big ideas of what is meaningful meet up with the details of life as it is experienced,” Rycenga observed. “In the case of the Canterbury academy, I found that by examining women’s lives and interracial cooperation, I have discerned how the participants were expanding the boundaries of what was possible for women to do and be.”​