Segregation in Deaf Schools

When Skin Color Separated Black and White Deaf Kids

When schools were segregated years ago, schools for the deaf followed suit. For over 100 years, Black deaf children attended separate educational programs, housed either on separate campuses or in separate buildings on the same campus as the school for the deaf. This separation led to the development of a Black dialect of American Sign Language.

Back view of elementary students raising their arms on a class.
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When schools for the deaf became integrated, these separate buildings and campuses were either closed or incorporated into the rest of the school. Over time, the Black dialect of ASL died out as the Black deaf children were no longer separated from the white deaf children. Fortunately, the memories of this experience have been preserved in books such as Sounds Like Home. This segregation was encouraged by the National Association of the Deaf, which in 1904 recommended the establishment of separate schools for Black deaf children.

This segregation meant that Black deaf teachers were able to get jobs teaching in the separate programs. The programs produced the first Black deaf teachers, Julius Carrett and Amanda Johnson, both of whom graduated from the North Carolina program for Black deaf, and H.L. Johns, who was a graduate of the Maryland program for Black deaf. All three were hired by the Texas Institute for Deaf, Dumb and Blind Colored Youth.

List of Segregated Schools

  • Alabama: School for Negro Deaf-Mutes and Blind (1891).
  • District of Columbia: The Kendall School at Gallaudet did not take in Black deaf students until 1952, when ordered to by a court (before that the deaf Black students attended school in Maryland). The story of the fight to get Kendall to take in DC Black deaf students was documented in the film "Class of '52." Kendall then set up a separate building, but the segregation was brief as in 1954 the historic Supreme Court ruling on integration meant that Kendall had to become integrated. The History Through Deaf Eyes exhibit has a photo of Black deaf Kendall students.
  • Florida: Florida Institute for the Blind, Deaf and Dumb Colored Department (1895).
  • Georgia: Georgia School for the Negro Deaf (1882).
    • Kentucky: Kentucky had a school for the colored deaf. The Kentucky Standard newsletter of the Kentucky School for the Deaf, vol.130, Spring 2003 had a brief article on the history of the colored school (1885 to 1950s).
      History Through Deaf Eyes: The History Through Deaf Eyes exhibit has a picture of Black deaf students in Kentucky on its page on Desegregated Schools.
  • Louisiana: Louisiana School for the Deaf stayed segregated as late as 1978, being the last school for the deaf to become integrated. The Black deaf Louisiana school was the Louisiana School for the Colored Deaf and Blind.
  • Maryland: School for the Colored Deaf and Blind (Maryland Institution for the Colored Blind and Deaf-Mutes) (1872). The American Annals of the Deaf and Dumb (precursor of the American Annals of the Deaf) had an article, "Maryland Institution for Colored Deaf-Mutes," in its July 1873 issue.
  • North Carolina: North Carolina School for Colored Deaf and Blind (1869) was first school for deaf Black children. The state established a Colored Department. One of the department's graduates, Roger D. O'Kelly, became a lawyer and he was profiled in the old Silent Worker, Volume 139, No.6. The article about Kelly, "The Only Negro Deaf-Mute Lawyer in the United States," can be viewed online.
  • Oklahoma: Oklahoma Industrial Institution for the Deaf, Blind, and Orphans of the Colored Race.
  • South Carolina: South Carolina Institution for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb and the Blind, Colored Department.
  • Tennessee: James Mason (Black, hearing) established a school for Black deaf, the Tennessee School for the Colored Deaf and Dumb.
  • Texas: Texas Institute for Deaf, Mute, and Blind Colored Youth (1887). William Holland, a former hearing slave who pushed for the establishment of a school for colored deaf, became its first superintendent in 1887.
  • Virginia: Virginia School for Colored Deaf and Blind Children (1909).
  • West Virginia: West Virginia School for the Colored Deaf and Blind (1919). One of the best-known deaf African Americans, Ernest Hairston, had attended this school just before it became integrated. The magazine Goldenseal, volume 28, number 3, Fall 2002, had an article, "The West Virginia Schools for the Colored Deaf and Blind," by Ancella Bickley. (You might be able to get a copy by contacting the publishers at WVCulture) Bickley also wrote a book, In Spite of Obstacles: A History of the West Virginia Schools for the Colored Deaf and Blind, 1926-1955. It was published by the West Virginia University Press in 2001 and appears to be out of print and VERY hard to find. A picture of the book can be found in the West Virginia University Alumni Magazine, Spring 2002 issue.
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  • Gannon, Jack R., Deaf Heritage, National Association of the Deaf, 1981, p.3.
  • Hairston, Ernest, and Smith, Linwood. Black and Deaf in America: Are We That Different, T.J. Publishers, Inc., 1983.
  • Paddon, Carol, and Humphries, Tom L. Inside Deaf Culture, Harvard University Press, 2005, pp. 50-54.