In 1834 a group of New Hampshire abolitionists decided to establish a school for black students. At first, Noyes Academy seemed relatively uncontroversial. But that would soon change.
Scheduled to open in March 1835, some 14 black students – boys and girls, mostly teenagers – made their way north to the small town of Canaan.
Noyes Academy Students Arrive
Henry Highland Garnet, 19, arrived at the school exhausted from travel and with an injured leg. Black passengers had to sit on the outside of carriages, making for a cold and miserable journey. He was warmly welcomed by Charles Kimball, a lawyer and supporter of Noyes Academy. Kimball would host most of the black students at the academy, and Garnet rested while he anticipated starting his studies. Garnet and his family had escaped from slavery in Maryland. He was raised in New York.
The trip to New Hampshire soon turned terrifying. As news of the interracial school spread, anti-abolitionists in Canaan and neighboring Hanover, Dorchester and Enfield began agitating. They posted road signs directing travelers to “Nigger Town.”
Proslavery newspapers piled on. The New Hampshire Patriot in June of 1835 carried an attack on the school:
“Since the establishment of the school, it has been no uncommon spectacle to witness 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 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, while a white girl attends upon them as servant.”
By July 4th, ominous rumors began to circulate that a riot was planned and the school would be attacked. On the night of the fourth, a large group of anti-abolitionists marched to the door of the school.
Dr. Timothy Tilton, a town magistrate, had taken up a position inside the building. Tilton opened the window and shouted that the crowd was breaking the law. He then began calling out the names of the agitators he recognized. Faced with the threat of prosecution, the crowd dispersed and the school survived.
The anti-abolition forces, led by Ben Porter and Jacob Trussell, next turned to Town Meeting for help. They drafted a resolution declaring the academy a “nuisance” and directing a committee to remove it at town expense to a location to be chosen by selectmen.
The Abolition Debate
Tiny Canaan, N.H., had become the temporary focal point for the nation’s abolition debate. Trussell was a Mason and drew political support from his network in the secret society both in Canaan and elsewhere. George Kimball, meanwhile, was a lawyer and postmaster and an Anti-Mason. He brought in financial support for Noyes Academy from abolitionists throughout New England.
The resolution declaring Noyes Academy a nuisance passed at Town Meeting, and work moving the school was to commence on August 10.
The day the work was to start began sunny and pleasant, but soon a gang of men again marched toward the school. Some townspeople took to the street to shout at the drunken mob, but retreated, fearing the destruction of their own houses.
Dr. Tilton again tried to intervene, but Porter and Trussell pushed him aside, citing the legal authority granted them by the Town Meeting. The town’s lawyer later issued an opinion that the mob acted illegally. However, prosecution was unlikely because of the controversial nature of the abolitionist cause.
Pushing past Tilton, the mob began smashing the fence in front of the school. The men assembled a team of some 90 oxen to literally pull the school from its foundation. It would take several days, uncounted quantities of rum and lots of broken chains, but eventually the group pulled the school to the town common to await the selectmen’s decision on where to put it. The mob also delivered an ominous threat to the students at the school. They had one month to leave town.
By now, the number of black students had dwindled. There remained only five boys and one girl.
The Mob Again
On September 10, the mob reassembled. It hauled the school to its final resting place and led a parade through town, firing a cannon in front of the houses of abolitionists, shattering some windows and rattling others.
The children and teacher scattered to schools elsewhere. Jacob Trussell read a victory speech. “The abolitionist monster that ascended out of the bottomless pit, is sent headlong to perdition, and the mourners go about the streets. To you, gentlemen, who have assisted in attaining the glorious victory, I present you hearty and sincere thanks.”
The town paid $135.39 to the committee that oversaw the moving of the school. While efforts were made to revive the school as a white-only institution, it stayed largely vacant. In 1838 the town voted funds to restore it, but in December of that year a “midnight mob” ransacked the building, stealing new windows recently installed. It burned in 1839. No one tried to extinguish the fire.
Looking back on the episode some years after the Civil War, some had repented their part in the rabble, while some remained unmoved.
Deputy Sheriff Samuel Cobb, despised in the community, had served on the committee that moved the school. The sheriff himself had stayed well clear on the day of the moving, receiving reports from men on the scene.
“Cobb never repented the part he took in producing the chaos in those days. It is said that for a long time after those events he was in the habit of hissing and spitting at clergymen whom he knew to be abolitionists,” according to The History of Canaan, New Hampshire.
Likewise, Jacob Trussell never repented. He sought and received a vote from Town Meeting assuring him that the town would defend him against any legal claims arising against him for his role in the destruction of the school.
His church, the Congregational Church, gave him less support. The church excommunicated him in 1839 for what he had done and distributed its findings that he was not in good standing with the church.
Henry Highland Garnet
Among the students at the school were a number who went on to become active abolitionists. Most famously, they included Henry Highland Garnet, who would continue his education and become a minister and abolitionist leader.
Garnet’s views – that armed conflict was the best way for slaves to win freedom – put him out of favor among mainstream pre-Civil War abolitionists. Garnet actively recruited and ministered to black soldiers who fought in the Civil War. In 1865 he delivered a sermon to Congress – the first black minister to do so – on the ending of slavery. Long after the Civil War, Garnet sought and won the appointment as ambassador to Liberia. He wanted to visit Africa, if only to die there. He did die there in 1882.
The records show that Garnet once returned to Canaan and preached at the Congregational Church. After he finished speaking, he was approached by Ben Porter, one of the men who led the charge in destroying Noyes Academy.
Porter then apologized for his part in destroying the school. He only lacked a little moral courage to make him go up at the close of the speech and make public confession to the whole audience, he told Garnet.
Thanks to The history of Canaan, New Hampshire, by William Allen Wallace. This story last updated in 2022.