In 1832, a young Connecticut schoolteacher defied her community and admitted young black women to her school.

She paid a high price: Waging a campaign of intimidation, white townspeople refused to sell her food and supplies, egged and burned her school, contaminated the school's water supply, attacked her students and barred them from church.

Arrested, imprisoned, tried and found guilty, and later thrown out of her church, she was one of the most controversial women of her day, known by reputation in the South and in Europe. But historians make little mention of Prudence Crandall.

In NBC's "She Stood Alone" (Monday at 9), Mare Winningham portrays Crandall, of Canterbury, Conn., who enrolled young black women in the nation's first "academy of higher education for young ladies and misses of color."

"The more I read, the more I'm convinced that she should be a major historical figure," said Winningham. "Her actions were coming from the most simplistic place. She was trying not to complicate what she thought was a simple issue: Should education be denied people based on the color of their skin?"

The story of the highly-principled New England teacher coincides with National Education Week and is the centerpiece of a collection of programs underscoring the value of education.

"She Stood Alone," a two-hour Walt Disney Television movie, takes place nearly 150 years ago, a time when blacks could not vote and when segregation was the norm, even in the North.

In the film, a politician says, "I for one would never support inequality," but in private he tries to discourage Prudence from enrolling blacks: "You must see that the time isn't right."

"People there considered themselves a progressive populace," said Winningham, "but they're constantly backpeddling. It was really a time of the awakening of so many feelings."

Robert Desiderio plays Andrew Gibson, a local lawyer who romances Crandall and proposes marriage. She accepts. But it is Gibson who ends up prosecuting her.

Winningham, who had read up on Crandall, said his role was created to facilitate the story. Such fiction, added by scriptwriter Bruce Franklin Singer, bothered the actress initially.

"The romance with the prosecuting attorney was never the case," she said, before taping began in February. "First, you read the script, and then you start studying and you get increasingly attracted to the truth. Then you meet the very pleasant writer, and you like him, and you realize what he's trying to do, so you end up thinking that it's all right.

"But I'm trying to concentrate on the history of the period. Right now I'm at the place where I want to know the facts."

After Crandall enrolled her 17-year-old housemaid, Marcia Davis, and Marcia's friend Sarah Harris, white families began withdrawing their daughters from the school. Eventually, inspired by Boston abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison (Ben Cross), editor of The Liberator, Crandall closed her school and reopened it to accept only young black women students.

Initially, Crandall's father, Pardon, declines to help his daughter. But after Eliza Hammond comes from out of state to enroll at Crandall's academy, Connecticut passes legislation called "The Black Law," banning blacks from coming into the state for schooling. Prudence is arrested and at last, Pardon Crandall (Joneal Joplin) defies the town selectmen to post bail for his daughter. Abolitionist lawyer Parker Ellsworth (Daniel Davis) defends her but she is found guilty anyway.

Winningham is intrigued by Pardon Crandall, a Quaker.

"Inherent in that religion was the sense of keeping peace, that everything should be done for the sake of the community," Winningham said. "I don't think in any way that her father thought that Prudence shouldn't proceed according to her principles, and I think he was quite proud of her. When he was in a corner he stood up for her. There were incidences that were recorded of the visits that were paid to him by the selectmen of the town, putting so much pressure on him legally. I think he was sort of stunned at what his daughter had instigated. I'm sure he was quite affected by her choices and quite moved, however much it affected his Quaker nature."

Religion was influential in New England life and Prudence's.

"When the film opens, true to her real life, she had just been baptized by immersion into a Baptist church," she said. "I think all of it was leading to her sort of spiritual state. The spiritual movement sort of started in the 1850s.

"When she was older and she moved to Kansas, the Baptist church kicked her out, but with a letter attesting to the highest regard for her character and her personage. They had to, because she refused to sign {a document stating that only a person who was baptised was saved}. They expelled her for her heretical beliefs, because she wouldn't agree that no soul would ever be lost. But they attested to her purity of spirit.

"I felt that was what she was operating under, that credo, that simple, simple truth ... that she really was of our founding fathers. The simplicity of her love for people was what made her decisions. One biography said that Prudence thought long and hard before admitting Sarah Harris to her school.

"Ultimately, given the true pressure, the pressures that were on her were hundredfold," said Winningham. "To me, what really stands out was her gender: She was a pioneer for temperance and suffrage and women's rights and peace. I feel that this person has got to be placed in proper perspective as to what her ideas and ideals mean and what she accomplished in her life."

Unfortunately, Winningham said, Prudence Crandall "really didn't even know peace in her life. She married poorly -- she made a wrong choice. Her later years were filled with a lot of pain. Her husband was a Baptist preacher, and he was a little off, and he definitely wanted to squash her and her fire.

"But she was very healthy: She outlived everybody and she kept in contact with many of the children's children of her pupils. Until her 80s, when she died, she was concerned with the colored community in Kansas and was always corresponding with the suffrage leaders back East and with the women's rights leaders. She had three stepchildren, and toward the end of her life, they definitely sided with her against their father."

This is not the first time Winningham has played a noble teacher nor the first time she has appeared in a period piece. In "Helen Keller: The Miracle Continues," she was self-sacrificing Annie Sullivan, who devoted herself to expanding the world of deaf and blind Keller at the turn of the century.

She played the hearing daughter of deaf parents in "Love Is Never Silent," a story set in the 1930s that won Emmys for outstanding drama special and directing. In March 1990, she starred in "Crossing to Freedom," set during World War II and filmed in Europe. She played a Frenchwoman who helps an Englishman (Peter O'Toole) lead French children to safety.

Winningham, 31, who grew up in Northridge, Calif., with four brothers and sisters, began her acting career in high school plays and musicals. Her first professional role was in an episode of NBC's single-season drama series, "James at 15" (1977-78). Three years later she won the Emmy for "Amber Waves."

She also appeared in the Humanitas Award-winner "God Bless the Child," in a dozen television movies and in the miniseries "The Thorn Birds." In "Freedom," she performed seven Janis Ian songs, and occasionally performs some of her own music at a Los Angeles club. Her five theatrical roles include "Turner and Hooch," "St. Elmo's Fire" and "One Trick Pony."

The actress said her career, so far built mainly on TV movies, gives her enough of what she calls "down time" to spend with her husband and their brood (ages 2, 4, 5, 7 and 9).

"I have nothing but positive memories of my childhood," she said. "I guess I'm trying to repeat my parents' experience."

Her next appearance will be in "Those Secrets," to be aired on ABC and co-starring Blair Brown.