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

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Lack of parental guidance and the absence of family support for children boarding at school have historically been complaints of parents with children educated away from home.24 Ernest Hairston, a Black and deaf scholar and author, addressed the issues of Black hearing families with deaf children in his 1983 book. He acknowledged the value of having deaf children stay in the home environment whenever possible and noted the importance of including the children in all of the family’s activities.
Some Black parents have two or three jobs just so their children will have a better life than themselves. They want to achieve educationally and economically. They have strong spiritual values. Black deaf children when exposed to these things come to feel a part of the family. They learn family values, goals, and expectations. This is a form of communication at its best and the Black deaf child should be part of this sharing in the joy and sorrow of everyday family life. . . . Parents should be there to share their moments of happiness and defeat, to lend words of encouragement, to say “no” when necessary, and to recognize the frustration many Black deaf children experience.25
Sending children away to school at such an early age deprives both parents and the child of the many benefits that Hairston addressed.

Before the Millers made the decision to enroll their son in PSD, however, they had visited the Overlea facility and found that the condition of the school was unacceptable. “I was shocked at the rundown physical plant and the poor system and I could not leave him there,” Miller said. More importantly, she stated that at the Maryland facility “children can only communicate by sign language or by writing.”26 In contrast, students at PSD were instructed using the oral method, which was considered a more advanced method of instruction during that period. The decision to send Kenneth to school in Pennsylvania, even though it was a greater distance from the district, was based on the Millers’ belief that he would receive a better education there. That outweighed that fact that he would be further from home.27

Miller’s complaints about the state of the Maryland facility were not unusual. The problems of inadequate facilities and quality education for handicapped and special-needs Black students were pressing issues. The lack of resources for deaf Black students in rural towns in the South was the subject of an article in The Journal of Negro Education in 1932. In 1937, James A. Scott, a Black educator, noted the lack of adequate funding made available by states and federal government for the facilities. Howard Hale Long, writing in 1947, looked at the lack of special educational services for Black youth. He included a table that showed enrollment in Southern residential public and private schools of both white and Black students. The District of Columbia provided for 234 white, deaf students and no Black students.28 It would remain this way until a successful legal challenge in 1952.

Some individuals and organizations in the district were concerned with advocating for equality for all citizens. Paul Cooke, a member of the Greater Washington Area Council of the American Veterans Committee (AVC), took up the cause of the district’s deaf Black children. He became, along with his organization, one of their staunchest advocates.29 Cooke’s involvement began when he read in the Congress Appropriation Act of 1950 that Congress had allocated funds for the instruction of the district’s white deaf children within the district, but not for Black children. The act provided funding for the education of deaf Black children at an institution outside of the district. Cooke had previously been unaware of this situation. He found it disturbing that such an unfair and discriminatory practice was going on and immediately took the matter to Florence Nierman, the chair of the Washington chapter of the AVC. She called for immediate action. The AVC board declared that the practice of racial discrimination was a denial of the children’s rights under the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States, and AVC embarked on a campaign to end this injustice.30

Cooke’s responsibilities were to research the Congressional acts, interview the parents of the children, determine the contact persons in the responsible district agencies, and prepare communications to them. His research indicated that the major figures in the educational decisions for the deaf children were the Board of Education, the superintendent of schools, the Board of Commissioners, the Federal Security Agency, and the Board of Directors of Gallaudet College, of which Kendall School was a part. Through conversations with churches, charitable agencies, and school officials, he found and contacted parents of deaf children.31

Nierman, in her capacity as chair of the AVC, began writing to the agencies and directors identified by Cooke to apprise them of the organization’s support of the parents and to try to see if there was an administrative remedy to the exclusion of the Black deaf students. She wrote to Albert Atwood, president of the Board of Directors of Gallaudet, in April 1951. The letter, which was forwarded to Leonard Elstad, Gallaudet’s president, expressed the concerns of the AVC at the inequality of the educational situation for the district’s Black deaf children.


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