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The brief, but courageous life of  Noyes Academy

Craig Wilder
Craig Wilder (Photo by Joseph Mehling '69)

While researching his book on the New York City school system, Professor of History Craig Wilder came across a surprising local connection. "I was researching early black activists, where they were educated, and I found that some were students at Noyes Academy in nearby Canaan, N.H.," said Wilder. Canaan, a small town 20 miles east of Hanover, was for a few months in 1835 home to Noyes Academy, an institution founded on the idea - revolutionary in pre-Civil War America - that blacks had the same rights as whites to formal education. Wilder found the story that resulted so fascinating that he developed his research into a presentation for a "Chalk Talk," Alumni Relations' Saturday pre-game fall lecture series.

Slavery was officially abolished in New York state in 1827, prompting a push among black parents for educational opportunities for their children. Although many cities offered some form of segregated schooling for black children, the kind of classical, formal education available to affluent whites was inaccessible to African Americans.

As a result, a group of abolitionists founded Noyes Academy with a view to offering students a classical education regardless of race or gender. A solid majority of the school's major donors and trustees voted to allow integration and the decision was announced in the Boston abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator.

Records of the academy and its students are scarce, but evidence suggests that among the more than two dozen students who formed the school's first and only class, some 14 were African Americans. What Wilder finds so remarkable is the hardship many students endured to reach Canaan and a chance at education. They came from all over the Northeast, their travel impeded not just by lack of funds but by restrictions on their use of public transportation and lodgings.

"Blacks could not ride in the cabins of steamboats," said Wilder. "They had to sleep out in the elements. How the students got to New Hampshire was heart wrenching. These black teenagers made long journeys under terrible conditions. It was an extraordinary struggle and sacrifice for education."

Among the students enrolled in Noyes Academy were several African Americans who later rose to prominence as abolitionists and activists. Henry Highland Garnet, an abolitionist remembered for his call for slave revolts as the antidote to slavery, and Alexander Crummell, who advocated that freed slaves emigrate to Liberia, both attended Noyes. Their fellow student Thomas Paul, Jr. would go on to be one of the earliest black graduates of Dartmouth. Paul was a member of the class of 1841.

Within months of its opening, opponents of integrating the academy appealed to the town of Canaan to close the school. At first, said Wilder, this tactic met with little success but the segregationists launched a campaign to discredit school officials and cultivate hysteria over the possibility of interracial marriage and racial mixing. "The local newspaper ran articles warning about young black men arm in arm with white women," said Wilder.

In August of 1835, hundreds of men from Canaan and surrounding towns, including Hanover, launched an assault on the school. They arrived with 90 oxen, ropes and chains. Working in shifts, they physically dragged the schoolhouse off of its foundation and destroyed it. The students watched from the homes of the local townspeople with whom they boarded. After destroying the school, the mob threatened the students and the people sheltering them by firing cannons at the homes.

Garnet, who, with many of his classmates, was boarding with school founder George Kimball, fired a return shot from the window, deterring the mob long enough for the students to be smuggled out of town under cover of night.

Beyond its interest as a forgotten narrative of New England, Wilder said he values the story of Noyes Academy for what it says about courage and commitment to education. "These were remarkable students," said Wilder, "and courageous abolitionists who risked persecution to further education and oppose slavery."

By GENEVIEVE HAAS 

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Last Updated: 5/30/08