Noyes Complaints: A White Mob (and 90 Yoke of Oxen) Drag a Racially Integrated School from Its Foundations in 1835 New Hampshire
Blame it on a literal reading of the Declaration of Independence.
On July 4, 1834, the New Hampshire state legislature granted a charter to found Noyes Academy in the rural Town of Canaan. Because the Declaration of Independence made no distinction as to the race of those rallying to the cause of freedom from oppression, neither did the incorporators of Noyes Academy impose any restrictions as to the race of the students who would be allowed to study there.
Twenty-eight white students and 14 African American students began their studies in Canaan in March 1835, the first instance of a racially integrated coeducational upper school in the United States. The Trustees offered their rationale for the school in 1834:
The undersigned, Trustees of the Noyes Academy, in conformity with the wishes of a large majority of the donors of said Academy, and with the unanimous vote of the corporators, named in the act of the Legislature, have come to the resolution to admit to the privileges of this Institution, colored youth of good character on equal terms with whites of like character.
In adopting this principle, the Trustees deem that they are reducing to practice the spirit and letter of the Declaration of our National Independence, of the Constitution and laws of New Hampshire, and the Bills of Rights of all the States of this United Republic, except those which have made literature a crime, and prohibited the reading of the Bible under heavy penalties.
In the State of New-Hampshire, according to the law, character and not complexion is the basis of every distinction, either of honor or infamy, reward or punishment. But what greater punishment can there be, what greater degradation, than to deprive the soul of its proper sustenance, the knowledge of divine and human things? Much better were it to kill the body than to doom the mind to ignorance and vice.
The founders’ motives were based in Christian charity and explicitly patriotic. What could possibly go wrong? Quite a lot as it turned out. Perhaps the differences that sprang up in Canaan upon the announcement that Noyes Academy would host black and white students “on equal terms” came down to varying degrees of foresight.
There was a faction in the town that was sympathetic to the views of white slaveholders in the Southern states, and who believed that challenging the institution of slavery in a systematic way would lead to civil war as indeed it did. In August 1835 they moved to “abate the public nuisance” of Noyes Academy by physically removing the entire building one half-mile from the lot on which it had been built. The “vote of the town” was spurious, but out of political and social expediency the town did cover the mob’s expenses. No one was prosecuted although the mob’s leader, Jacob Trussell, was excommunicated from his church.
We learn verbally from Canaan, that, agreeably to a previous vote of the town, on Monday last the inhabitants assembled with their oxen, and proceeded in a very regular and business like manner to remove the building in which was kept the school for the promiscuous education of black and white scholars. They hitched to the building and drew it from the village about half a mile into a swamp, where it was left, safe and sound. During the proceedings, some persons appeared and attempted to read the riot act, to which no attention was paid—and after the removal was completed, a committee was appointed to wait upon the instructer [sic] of the school and give him fair and timely warning to quit the town forthwith.
The proponents of the school and of abolitionism generally sought to plant their flag on higher ground. They could see past the nascent conflict with slaveholding states, or at least were willing to accept disunion in the short term to realize their ideals of equality before God and man. Their position was expressed in the poet John Greenleaf Whittier’s essay, Justice and expediency; or, Slavery considered with a view to its rightful and effectual remedy, abolition (1833).
But it may be argued that New-England has no participation in Slavery, and is not responsible for its wickedness.
Why are we thus willing to believe a lie? New-England not responsible! Bound by the United States Constitution to protect the slave-holder in his sins, and yet not responsible! Joining hands with crime—covenanting with oppression—leaguing with pollution, and yet not responsible! Palliating the Evil—hiding the Evil—voting for the Evil,* do we not participate in it? Members of one Confederacy—children of one family—the curse and the shame—the sin against our brother, and the sin against our God,—all, all the iniquity of Slavery which is revealed to man, and all which crieth in the ear, or is manifested to the eye of Jehovah, will assuredly be visited upon all our people. Why then should we stretch out our hands towards our Southern brethren, and like the Pharisee thank God we are not like them? For so long as we practically recognize the INFERNAL PRINCIPLE that “man can hold property in man,” God will not hold us guiltless. So long as we take counsel of the world’s policy instead of the Justice of Heaven: so long as we follow a mistaken political expediency in opposition to the express commands of God, so long will the wrongs of the Slaves rise like a cloud of witnesses against us at the inevitable bar.
Anyone who lived through the civil rights struggle in the 1960s, the Boston busing crisis in the mid-1970s, or more recent demonstrations against racial violence has seen that fears about perceived losses of privilege and cultural identity can strike very deep emotional chords in people’s hearts.
For the opponents of Noyes Academy the precipitating crisis resulted from reports that young black gentlemen were walking arm in arm with young white ladies, and that those same black gentlemen were waited upon at table by a white serving girl. They believed that miscegenation or “amalgamation” of the races was sure to follow, and that only immediate action could prevent their established social relations from being upended.
We are informed that since the establishment of this school it has been no uncommon spectacle to witness the colored gentlemen walking arm in arm with what ought to be respectable white females—and that respectable people opposed to the school, as well as others, have been invited to parties where the colored portion of the school were also invited guests. It is also said that one of the principal agitators of the slave question in this State, George Kimball, Esq., and his family sit at table with a half dozen colored people, whilst a white girl attends upon them as a servant. We do not wonder that the people of Canaan should consider such an establishment a “nuisance,” and that they should adopt all lawful measures for its removal.
George Kimball (1787-1858), mentioned above, was an attorney, postmaster, and abolitionist born in Massachusetts. He graduated from Dartmouth College in 1809, worked as a schoolteacher and journalist, and moved to Canaan in 1826. Kimball was the motivating force behind Noyes Academy. He raised funds and support for the school, solicited students throughout New England, and boarded black students in his home. Eventually he had to help them escape when the drunken mob began firing cannon and small arms into the houses of known abolitionists. Hopes and windows were shattered, but no lives were lost. The Underground Railroad became an express train out of Canaan.
One of the black students who escaped was Henry Highland Garnet (1815-1882), a 19-year-old former slave. He would return to Canaan several years later as a minister and spoke at a service wherein he was well received. Garnet went on to play a prominent role in the abolition movement, and especially in efforts to encourage mass migration of African Americans to Africa. In 1861 he travelled to England using what was thought to be the first passport issued by the U.S. State Department to a black citizen.
Rev. Henry Garnett (colored) is traveling in England with the regular passport of an American citizen, the first passport that has been given by the State Department to a colored citizen since the formation of the Union, it is said.
He further distinguished himself in 1865 as the first black minister to preach to the U.S. House of Representatives, on February 12, 1865. His sermon was based on Matthew 23:4, concerning the Pharisees’ lack of support for disadvantaged persons: “For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.”
The first instance of a colored divine being allowed to conduct religious services in the Hall of Representatives occurred yesterday, when the Reverend HENRY HIGHLAND GARNET, colored, occupied the Speaker’s stand and delivered a sermon, which those who understand such matters say, was an effort worthy of many preachers holding forth from the same pulpit. The occasion attracted a very large audience of white and black soldiers and citizens, who filled the floor and galleries, without any distinctions or privileges of color whatever.
Garnet is featured in a mural painted in the U.S. Capitol by artist Allyn Cox commemorating the 1866 civil rights bill, which prohibited discrimination on the bases of race or previous condition of slavery. Garnet is depicted in the foreground speaking with journalist Horace Greeley, an ardent abolitionist.
Garnet’s first wife Julia Williams (1811-1870) was also a student of Noyes Academy who earlier had been a student of Prudence Crandall’s school for colored girls in Canterbury, Connecticut. In 1833 Crandall was arrested and her school forced to close under circumstances similar to those that existed in Canaan. The following excerpt comes from Williams’ obituary.
From a child Mrs. Garnet thirsted for education, and she was one of the scholars of the famous seminary of Miss Prudence Crandall, at Canterbury, Conn., and remained there until that school was broken up by pro-slavery violence, and Miss Crandall was thrown into jail for the crime of teaching colored girls. From Canterbury she repaired to Canaan Academy, in New Hampshire, at which place she met her husband for the first time. The mob swept away the academy at Canaan, and dispersed the pupils, and she was kindly received into the family of the late N.P. Rogers, of Concord, N.H.
When Garnet died in 1882 following a brief tenure as U.S. Minister to Liberia, his eulogy was given by yet another black scholar from Noyes Academy, Alexander Crummell (1819-1898). Crummell studied at the University of Cambridge in England, and worked in Liberia as both a minister and a professor.
We would be remiss not to touch upon a few schools that came before and after Noyes Academy. Among that number Prudence Crandall’s boarding school “for the reception of young Ladies and little Misses of color” is prominent.
PRUDENCE CRANDALL, Principal of the Canterbury, (Conn.) Female Boarding School, Returns her most sincere thanks to those who have patronized her School, and would give information that on the first Monday of April next, her School will be opened for the reception of young Ladies and little Misses of color. The branches taught are as follows:—Reading, Writing, Arithmetic, English Grammar, Geography, History, Natural and Moral Philosophy, Chemistry, Astronomy, Drawing and Painting, Music on the Piano, together with the French language.
Crandall was a Quaker who initially offered instruction only to white children. In 1832 she granted the request of Sarah Harris, a black child, for admission. In response white parents began to withdraw their own children from the school. Crandall then devoted her school to the exclusive education of African American girls and young ladies which led the State of Connecticut to pass a law prohibiting the education of black children from outside the state. Crandall was jailed, threatened, and her school attacked before she finally left Canterbury in 1834.
To give the reader a sense of how contentious the matter of slavery was at that time and to demonstrate that violence wasn’t limited to one side of the argument, the following is a letter from a reader who threatened a dire fate for one of Crandall’s opponents:
Disgraceful Scoundrel!—I have just read in the Boston Advocate, that you have had a white young lady put in prison, for taking in her school some colored girls.—From all that I have seen and heard of your conduct in this matter, I must say my opinion of you is this—You is (are) a poor, dirty, mean, pitiful, dastardly puppy.—Hypocritical villain, a rascal of the lowest order. I cannot and will not waste any more paper with such a Hell deserving hypocrite as you is. (are.) But this much I will tell you, I will be in Canterbury in 3 weeks, and you may prepare yourself for me, for I mean to beat you under the earth if I can lay my hands on you. If not I will take a shot at you. You poor dead dog.
N.B. If you dont change your course of life and conduct towards that good young woman, in case I do not meet with you myself, I will hire some Irishman to mould you. It shall be done if I have to [pay] five hundred dollars to have it done.
I leave you a poor Devil.
The Oneida Institute was a manual labor school in Whitesboro, New York, active from 1827-1843, to which blacks and whites were admitted equally. It was founded by Presbyterian clergy and abolitionists to offer training in both the spiritual and the physical trades; its students worked as farmers and tradesmen as well as studying classical subjects. Henry Highland Garnet, Julia Williams, and Alexander Crummell all completed their education at Oneida after Noyes Academy was destroyed.
The following excerpt is taken from an 1839 publication of the Oneida Institute defending the abolition of slavery.
What, in this country, may now be the test question, by which the character of our fellow citizens and fellow christians is to be judged of, can not but be familiar to the thoughts of every observant and reflective mind. It is clearly this: WHETHER THE PRINCIPLE OF HUMAN EQUALITY SHALL BE CARRIED OUT IN THE ABOLITION OF SLAVERY,—OR WHETHER, IN OPPOSITION TO THIS PRINCIPLE, THE FREE SHALL BE ENSLAVED.” This is the question which every man, woman, and child, in this republic, is now required to consider, examine, and decide. And here all are brought to a test through which a strong and clear light must be shed upon their character.
Considering the rich legacy of scholarship and social justice surrounding Noyes Academy, its mysterious destruction by fire in 1839 can be viewed as a Pyrrhic victory for the opponents of civil rights for black persons in America.