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In 1835, an Integrated School Opened in Canaan, and Was Destroyed

  • Mikel Wells’ 1999 painting, "Destruction of Noyes Academy," which is owned by the Canaan Historical Society. (Courtesy Canaan Historical Society and Mikel Wells)

  • Since 2012, Dan Billin, of Lebanon, N.H., has been speaking about Noyes Academy, a school in Canaan, N.H., established by abolitionists in the early 1800s. “It’s a big, startling story,” he said. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Alexander Crummell

  • Henry Highland Garnet



Valley News Staff Writer
Monday, April 02, 2018

Most people have heard about the group of students called the Little Rock Nine, who made history in 1957 when they enrolled in an all-white public high school in Arkansas. The controversial school integration was part of a heated national debate over whether students of different races should be allowed to learn together, and the story of the Little Rock Nine is now considered a critical chapter of civil rights history in the United States.

But the story of the short-lived and ill-fated Noyes Academy — an integrated school that opened in Canaan more than 120 years prior to the Little Rock Nine, in 1835, only to be destroyed months later by an angry mob that dragged the building a half-mile down the road from its foundation — is one that history has largely forgotten.

Dan Billin wants to change that. Since 2012, he’s been sharing the story of Noyes Academy as part of a program with the New Hampshire Humanities Council. He will give his next presentation Wednesday night at 7, at the Enfield Community Building.

“It’s a big, startling story,” he said, and one that is surprisingly obscure, given its historical gravitas.

Billin, a former Valley News reporter who is now a donor relations officer at Dartmouth College, stumbled upon the Noyes Academy story quite by accident. He was reading an 1850s travelogue of New Hampshire and Vermont, which made a passing reference to the school that left him “completely gob-smacked,” he said.

It was a story of subversion and destruction, of friendship and loathing, and of triumph over unthinkable odds. It was a story about black history in New Hampshire that, as a New Hampshire native and history buff, was news even to him. Billin grew up in the Lakes Region and now lives in Lebanon.

The political backdrop to Noyes Academy was a tense one. Abolitionists around New England were disrupting church services to talk about slavery, and opponents of the abolitionist movement responded by disrupting their meetings — stamping their feet, standing up and shouting, even throwing rocks through windows. 

“They were radicals for the time,” Billin said of the abolitionists. “They were like the Code Pink of their day.”

This radical behavior could come at a high cost, he added. “People were being killed for speaking out.”

His presentation also details the post-Noyes trajectories of several of its brilliant black students, all close friends, who — despite being run out of town by escalating threats of violence — would make their mark on the civil rights movements of the day. These students included Alexander Crummell, who would go on to become a minister known for his erudition and the first African-American graduate of the University of Cambridge, and Henry Highland Garnet, an outspoken abolitionist who paved the way for better-remembered anti-slavery figures, such as Frederick Douglass.

Their achievements show that what happened in Canaan “didn’t keep them down,” Billin said. “It’s inspiring.”

Billin’s research also includes a component of mystery: Some 60 years after the destruction of Noyes Academy, Crummell came back. Much had changed, according to a letter he wrote to a friend about his visit — but Billin has only read citations from the letter, and has yet to find a complete version of it. He hopes that, as the story of Noyes Academy spreads, that letter might come to light, too.

And it is spreading: A recent movie about black history in New Hampshire, called Shadows Fall North, briefly features Noyes Academy. Strange Fruit, a graphic novel of stories from black history, includes it too. Billin has noticed more hands going up when he asks audiences if they’ve heard of the school.

He thinks the story has resurfaced partially because of the changing times, and partially because information is more readily available now than ever before.

“(A) vast number of primary sources have become accessible in the digital age, and more are becoming available all the time,” he wrote in an email. “The Internet and the widespread digitization of books and archival materials has really opened up historical research. Before digital resources were available, it could have taken a lifetime to track down those things in far-flung libraries.”

The story of Noyes Academy — its founding principles, its students and its destroyers — has the potential to “illustrate how much black people went through in this country,” Billin said.

And as more people begin to reckon with this long-buried piece of Canaan’s past, the story might even revise the one the Upper Valley tells about itself.

Dan Billin will give a free presentation about Noyes Academy and some of its notable students Wednesday at 7, at the Enfield Community Cent er.

EmmaJean Holley can be reached  at ejholley@gma il.com or 603-727-3216.

Correction

In the 1830s, opponents of the abolitionist movement disrupted meetings in locations around New England, and abolitionists disrupted church services in various locations as well. There is no record, however, of such events taking place in Canaan, according to Lebanon resident Dan Billin, who has researched the history of Noyes Academy, an integrated school in Canaan that was destroyed in 1835. An earlier correction incorrectly described where the protests were known to have occurred. In addition, Billin is looking for a letter written by the former Noyes Academy student Alexander Crummell, who returned to Canaan 60 years after the school was destroyed. An earlier version of this story misidentified the writer of the letter.