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The year is 1832 in Canterbury, northern US. Far from being intimidated by the local community, Prudence Crandall –a 30-year-old teacher — decided to accept only pupils of colour. People took offence when she accepted Sarah, a young black girl, into her school.
But this radical choice and the outpouring of hatred in the small Connecticut town would remain an important episode in the movement against school segregation, which wasn’t declared unconstitutional until more than a century later, in 1954.
Wilfrid Lupano, creator of the successful series Les Vieux Fourneaux, discovered this part of the American history by chance. He was researching the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, one of the school’s most vocal supporters.
Although Crandall’s story had been highlighted in a few books and articles, this committed scriptwriter wanted to tell a different story. He wanted to break away from the “white savior” narrative, which tends to suggest that black people have only obtained their rights thanks to white people.
“Some very old white men are debating among themselves, somewhere, about whether we black girls have the right to study in this school,” says Maggie indignantly, while her teacher’s first trial is taking place, in which her lawyers will for the first time defend African-Americans’ rights to citizenship.
“The focus was on the teacher, but nothing was written about the girls. So I tried to imagine them, to embody them,” says Lupano, who refused the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres award from the French government in 2019 and criticised its policies; in particular the ‘undignified’ reception of its migrants.
Patriarchy and memory
To draw the outlines of these determined girls – most of whom were born into influential abolitionist families – Lupano called on Stéphane Fert, an ‘old friend’ from his home town of Pau in south-western France. He and Stéphane had previously written a children’s book on freedom of expression titled Quand le Cirque est Venu.
Under the influence of the protagonists’ emotions and outbursts of anger, the colourist’s palette varies constantly and the differences fade away, to the point where one can no longer distinguish between the black people and the “whites all around.”
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Plunged into a hostile environment, in which ‘the whole world’ tells them ‘no’, the Canterbury heroines are plagued by questions that are still very relevant today.
“Some very old white men are debating among themselves, somewhere, about whether we black girls have the right to study in this school,” Maggie says indignantly, while her teacher’s first trial is taking place, where her lawyers will for the first time defend African-Americans’ rights to citizenship.
And when Nat Turner’s name comes up, the leader of a bloody slave revolt that had traumatised white America a year earlier, Sarah’s reflections echo the most recent debates on the history of slavery and colonialism.
“I don’t mind learning about Alexander the Great, Christopher Columbus […]. But I need to understand the difference between a despicable massacre and a historical conquest. Because I don’t see it, Miss. I don’t see it,” she says.
Women, black and educated
Even after slavery was abolished in Connecticut, it was still not a good place to be black, let alone an educated black man like Turner, or even worse, a black woman.
“There is a convergence of struggles that crystallises in this school,” says the scriptwriter, who is also a co-founder of Ink Link, an association of comic book professionals that depicts social, environmental and humanitarian causes.
Young Miriam understood this well. “Educated black women will have educated children who will have even more educated children,” she says. This is the threat that these schoolgirls pose to the white population. “They don’t want it to start. And it’s starting here,” her classmates say.
Neither the racist attacks nor the burning of their school by an angry mob weakened their resolve. Many of them would go on to become leading figures in the fight for African-American education and social justice. Sarah Harris Fayerweather and Mary Elizabeth Miles even became pillars of the Underground Railroad, which was used by escaped slaves.
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