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A Fair Chance in the Race of Life: The Role of Gallaudet University in Deaf History

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That same year Kendall offered Edward Miner Gallaudet, by letter, the position of superintendent of the Columbia Institution.5 Gallaudet’s background was above reproach. His father, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, co-founded the first American school for the deaf in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1817. His deaf mother, Sophia, was one of his father’s first students. Gallaudet and his mother came to Washington together. She took the position of housemother to the students.

When the school opened, an estimated twenty deaf and ten blind students were expected from the district and an unknown number from Maryland.6 Among the students that Gallaudet was preparing to direct were a few who were Black. This was an unusual situation for this period. Before the Civil War, Black people, both deaf and hearing, struggled to obtain a formal education. Because it was a criminal offense in some states to educate enslaved people, those enslaved persons who learned to read, like Frederick Douglass, concealed that fact. However, the pre–Civil War Columbia Institution accepted Black students, but their numbers were always small. Many came because of the intervention of wealthy white patrons. Gallaudet received numerous requests for assistance and generally responded positively to them by accepting the youth at the Kendall School. Gallaudet clearly saw the school’s mission as providing education for all deaf students when he initially accepted both races. He noted in the History of the College for the Deaf that there had been “colored pupils since the early days of the school.” Although Black and white students had separate sleeping and eating accommodations, all of them were taught together in the classroom.7

Gallaudet continued to receive letters in the late 1800s regarding orphaned Black students found abandoned in alleys, sponsored by church groups and other social agencies. He continued to respond positively to these requests for assistance for poor, Black deaf youth in need of training and accepted all who were sent. One such request came in a letter from R. Y. Maussma, dated March 3, 1879.

Wm. N. Catlett, mulatto, 6 years old, residing on Wilson St. County, D.C., was born deaf and dumb. His father, a laborer in the Treasury Dept. wishes him to enter into your institute. What conditions have to be observed to gain admission for him. Please inform.8
In another letter dated Nov. 21, 1889, Jenine W. Scudder, asked,
Would you please inform me whether colored deaf mute children are received at Kendall Green? I have discovered a poor deaf mute colored boy, living in an alley and would like to try to help him to “better things” but before anything can be done I must know whether you can receive him or not. May I hear from you as soon as convenient?9
The integration of the races in the classroom had been established from the early years of the school. In 1898, Kendall School had fourteen Black deaf students enrolled. However, two years earlier Gallaudet had begun to receive complaints from the white parents about the intermixing of students, and by 1901 white parents had begun to object strenuously to the presence of these students. Soon after the parental objections began, the relationship between the students, which had been cordial, quickly deteriorated. When the white students began harassing the Black students it became obvious to Gallaudet that the ability of the students to coexist had eroded.10 Contributing to this hostile environment was the conclusion of the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case, the Supreme Court decision that established the doctrine of “separate but equal” as the law of the land.11 Gallaudet, feeling compelled to take some action, approached Senator Francis Cockrell (D) from Missouri. The senator offered assistance by obtaining Congressional legislation, approved on March 3, 1905, that provided for the transfer of the African American students to the Maryland School for Colored Deaf-Mutes in Overlea, Maryland.12

The Maryland School for the Colored Blind and Deaf was founded in 1872 by Frederick Douglas Morrison, director of the Maryland School for the Blind. The School for the Colored Deaf was located within the physical structure of Maryland’s School for the Blind.13 The legislation sponsored by Cockrell further authorized the education of deaf Black district pupils at the Maryland facility.

For the maintenance and tuition of colored deaf-mutes of teachable age belonging to the District of Columbia in the Maryland School for Colored Deaf-Mutes, as authorized in an Act of Congress approved March third, nineteen hundred and five, and under a contract to be entered into by the Commissioners of the District of Columbia, five thousand dollars, or such thereof as may be necessary.14

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