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

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I am the mother of Donald Mayfield, who is living in Washington and attending the Maryland School for the Blind at Overlea, MD. My child is 8 years of age and it works an extreme hardship on the child and me to have the child attending school outside of the District of Columbia. I understand that it is the responsibility of the Board of Education to provide for the education of all children within the District of Columbia. I therefore respectfully request the Board of Education to provide education for my child within the District of Columbia beginning with the September 1951 term.38
By December 1951, the AVC had spent more than eight months corresponding with the agencies responsible for the oversight of the education of the district’s deaf children. They prepared, wrote, and delivered a sixpage statement to the Board of Education on December 26, 1951. The statement, with a cover letter from Cooke, outlined the unequal situation of the students. It set forth the current legislation regarding the education of the deaf students. Additionally, it supported the requests of the Black parents who also wrote the agencies. Their letters requested admission for their deaf children to the Kendall School in the District of Columbia. This statement marked the end of the AVC’s first phase of a two-prong strategy to challenge educational policy.39

On February 2, 1952, the law firm of Cobb, Hayes, and Howard filed Miller et al. v. Board of Education of District of Columbia et al. Civil No. 515–52 in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. Louise B. Miller and her son Kenneth, who was now eleven and on whose behalf she had begun her advocacy in 1946, were the lead plaintiffs. They were joined by Marvin Brown and his daughter, Irene Brown; Mattie Hood and her son Robert Jones; Grace Jones and her son William Matthews; Minnie Mayfield and her son Donald Mayfield; and Luke Richardson and his daughter Doris Richardson. John D. Fauntleroy and Phineas Indritz, respectively, argued the case for the plaintiffs and prepared the plaintiffs’ briefs.

The defendants in the suit were the Board of Education of the District of Columbia, the Board of Commissioners of the District of Columbia, and the Board of Directors of Gallaudet College. They were represented by two legal teams: Vernon E. West, corporation counsel, and Milton D. Korman, assistant corporation counsel,40 and Roger Robb for Gallaudet. The judge in the nonjury hearing was David Pine. An article in the Washington Afro-American, on February 8, 1952, summarized the initial filing as follows, “A suit [w]as filed in District Court last Friday to force the Columbia Institution for the Deaf, the District Board of Education and the District Board of Commissioners to educate colored deaf children within the District of Columbia.”41

The Washington Pittsburgh Courier ran an article on the filing on February 9, citing the policy of sending the deaf students out of the city.42 An article in the Washington Post on February 21, 1952, reported on discussions centered on changing the residential program at Kendall to a day school.43 But it was an article in the Washington Daily News on February 21, 1952, that drew the most attention. Written almost three weeks after the filing of Miller, it reported on an overture by the District School Board that was prophetic. The article stated that, “School Supt. Hobart M. Corning today has orders from the District School Board to study the possibility of ‘integrating’ white and Negro schools here, and to report within 30 days.”44

Judge Pine’s decision in finding for the plaintiffs in the nonjury hearing immediately changed the almost fifty-year-old educational policy for deaf Black district children. The judge’s decision was based on the ruling in the 1938 Missouri ex. Rel Gaines v. Canada, 305 U.S. 337 case. In this case, Lloyd L. Gaines, an African American, was denied admission to the University of Missouri law school because of his race. As a practice, the state paid the tuition of African Americans at out-of-state schools rather than admit them to the University of Missouri. This way the state avoided the expense of having to construct separate-but-equal facilities. The court ruled for the plaintiff and held that Missouri provided no equal access to higher education for both races within its borders. The court found Missouri’s policy to be state-practiced racial discrimination, and therefore in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. Missouri then built and staffed a Black law school within the University of Missouri. Judge Pine, in basing his ruling on that precedent, stated,

As I see it, the practice involved in this case offends against the Gaines decision; and therefore, to maintain the legality of the separation of the races, it is the duty of the District to provide equal educational facilities within the District for the deaf children of both races, if it provides for any therein.45

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