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

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The Congressional action eliminated the presence of African Americans at Kendall. The fourteen students in attendance were transferred in September 1905 to the Maryland School for Colored Deaf-Mutes. The resulting policy of educating deaf Blacks outside of the district stayed in place for the next fifty years.

In 1946 Louise B. Miller, a district resident with a deaf child, began her challenge to this policy, a journey that would not end until 1952. On May 21, 1946, Miller met with A. K. Savoy, associate superintendent of the district’s schools. At that meeting, she requested that her deaf five-year-old son, Kenneth, be allowed to attend the district’s deaf facility, Kendall School.15 When her request was denied, she asked that he be educated, at the expense of the district, in the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf (PSD) in Mount Airy, Pennsylvania.16 Founded on May 15, 1821, PSD was an integrated institution that from its beginning accepted out-of-state students.

The Congressional Appropriation Act of March 3, 1905, allowed for support of district students at facilities other than the Maryland school, but Miller was not able to secure this support. The district would not send children to the Pennsylvania school unless they had some special needs that could not be met at the Maryland school. Miller was informed that her son would have to undergo a required preliminary examination before any placement could take place. Following the results of the examination, she was advised that he did not have special needs. The admission committee that reviewed student applications for admission to the school thought that Miller’s son was too young for acceptance. Additionally, there were no vacancies at the Maryland institution.17 To compound the matter there were other students ahead of him on the admission list. Francis Andrews, superintendent of the Maryland School for the Blind commented, “I would prefer that he wait another year, for there are certainly Washington children of school age, who probably should be with us.”18 On October 3, 1946, six months after she first met with Savoy, Miller received a letter from the District of Columbia School Board formally notifying her of their decision. Because of limited space and his young age, the board decided that Kenneth would have to wait until the next school year to be placed with the Maryland facility.19

Although the language in the March 3, 1905, Congressional Appropriation Act for the district provided for instruction and maintenance of “colored deaf-mutes,” Miller encountered several obstacles in trying to obtain both instruction and maintenance for her child. Kenneth could not be educated at Kendall School because of his race. He was unable to start his education at the Maryland school because of his age and lack of space. Furthermore, his education would not be sponsored by the district at the PSD because he did not have any special needs. Refusing to be deterred, in April of 1947 Miller wrote to G. C. Wilkinson, one of the commissioners of the District of Columbia. She restated her request for immediate admittance of her son to the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf at the district’s expense. Wilkinson, responding to the correspondence, contacted Assistant Superintendent Savoy on April 14, 1947, seeking clarification of the situation.20

Savoy’s memorandum of April 15, 1947, explained the circumstances of the Miller case. He stated that he was acting in accordance with the conclusion of Francis Andrews, superintendent of the Maryland School for the Blind and the Maryland School for the Colored Deaf. Andrews, in a September 7, 1946, letter, reported that the Maryland facility could accommodate Kenneth if

The District has the funds and if he has been trained to take care of his personal wants, such as toilet habits, Etc. Of course he is younger than we generally take them but we can make exceptions, especially if the child seems most promising. I think when you and I discussed the Washington pupils this boy was one whom we thought we would accept if there was room in the district group.21
However, three days later, another letter arrived from Andrews. He had changed his position and explained, “Concerning Kenneth Miller, of whom you wrote; I would prefer that he wait another year, for there are certainly Washington children of school age, who probably should be with us. We certainly will be glad to consider Kenneth in the fall of 1947.”22

Since Miller’s appeal to Wilkinson to have the district support her son’s education at PSD also was unsuccessful, she realized that her son’s education would have to come without assistance from the District of Columbia, where she and her husband both worked and lived. Miller was employed as a statistical clerk at the Census Department, and her husband, Luther Miller, was a district police officer. They were determined to provide the best educational opportunities for their son. The Millers believed that an early educational start was necessary for deaf children to excel. From 1947 to 1948, the Millers engaged private tutors for Kenneth and paid them $5 an hour to provide the educational foundation they believed Kenneth needed. They decided in 1949, when their son turned eight, to place him in PSD at their own expense. Kenneth’s tuition for the first year was $1,350; it rose to $1,650 during the second year.23 He was educated there for the next two years. Because the institution was a residential facility, Kenneth boarded there. He was away from his family from September until the end of the school year in May. The Millers believed the expense of the tuition, the absence of their son, and the lack of parental guidance for him to be unfair and unnecessary burdens on their family.

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