Today is one of the important days in National Deaf History Month, celebrated from March 13-April 15. Deaf History Month began as Deaf Awareness Week in December 1974, when Alice Lougee Hagemeyer, a Deaf librarian at the District of Columbia Public Library established Deaf Awareness Week, with talks by Deaf presenters. Five years later, she created The Red Notebook for Martin Luther King Memorial Library staff as a resource for information about the Deaf community.
In 1996, the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) suggested that the week be extended to a month, and a year later, the first National Deaf History Month was celebrated from March 13-April 15, to include several key dates in Deaf history.
On March 6, 1988, Gallaudet University’s Board of Trustees announced that Elisabeth A. Zinser, a hearing person had been selected as the seventh president. Students, supported by alumni, faculty, and staff shut down campus in protest. After a week, their demands were met and I. King Jordan became Gallaudet’s first Deaf president on March 13. The American School for the Deaf opened in Hartford Connecticut as the first permanent public school for the Deaf on April 15, 1817. Nearly fifty years later, President Lincoln signed Gallaudet University’s charter in Washington DC on April 8, 1864, establishing the first higher education institution for Deaf and hard-of-hearing students in the world.
Julia Brace (June 13, 1807-August 12, 1884) was the first deaf-blind person to be educated in the United States. Brace was born in what is now Newington, Hartford, Connecticut. By age five, she had been at school and could read, spell, and sew. However she contracted typhus fever which left her deaf and blind, and though she continued to speak for some time afterwards, she soon stopped. She received a rudimentary education in household skills and communicated with her family in home sign.
Shortly before she turned eighteen in 1825, when she became a student at the Hartford Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb (now called the American School for the Deaf). It had been founded in 1817 by Revered Thomas H. Gallaudet, Dr. Mason Fitch Cogswell and others, to expand the French system of education for the deaf begun by Abbe Sicard.
Through the 1820s and 30s, there was little attempt to educate Brace in reading and writing beyond manipulating wooden letters and pins on a cushion to produce words and learning to associate words with objects. She did, however learn tactile signing.
But attitudes toward her change in 1828 after Lydia Sigourney, a Hartford poet and educator published Brace’s story and wrote about her in three poems in the 1830s. In 1837, Hartford Asylum principal Lewis Weld wrote at length about Brace in the annual report, which also published a former matron’s recollections of Brace’s time there.
Around that time, Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, superintendent of the Perkins Institution and Massachusetts Asylum for the Blind, visited the Asylum and began to teach Brace. He left and returned in the autumn of 1841, with Laura Bridgman, who had been his student for four years since age seven. Bridgman had become deaf and blind after contracting scarlet fever at two. She and her family, like Brace’s, developed rudimentary sign language to communicate Dr. Howe brought her to the Perkins School for the Blind when she was seven. At the Institute, Howe taught her English and after she had mastered that, added many other classes, including geography, arithmetic, history, physiology, philosophy, and history.
Seeing Bridgman’s progress, Sigourney urged him to perform a similar experiment with Brace. How was pessimistic about the attempt as Brace was now nearly thirty-five. Despite his hesitations, Brace enrolled in the Perkins Institute in 1942 and began to learn to read. In his 1842 report, Howe that while Brace was willing and able to learn, and could construct simple sentences, her decades-long use of sign language proved to be far easier.
One year after enrolling at Perkins, Brace returned to the Asylum and lived there until 1860 when she left to live with a married sister in Connecticut. She died on 1884 and is buried in an unmarked grave.
Andrew Foster (June 27, 1925-) was the first deaf black person to receive a Bachelor’s Degree from Gallaudet College. He established thirty-one schools for the deaf across thirteen countries in Africa.
Foster was born in 1925 in Ensley, Alabama. When he was eleven, he and his brother contracted spinal meningitis and became deaf. Foster attended the segregated Alabama School for the Colored Deaf in Talladega before moving to Flint Michigan at seventeen to attend the Michigan School for the Deaf through eighth grade. In 1950, he received his diploma in accounting and business administration from the Detroit Institute of Commerce, and his high school diploma through a correspondence course in 1951.
With encouragement from actor, teacher, and playwright Eric Malzkuhn who graduated from Gallaudet in 1943, Foster applied to Gallaudet. Foster was rejected several times because he was black. Finally, in 1951, he was accepted with a full scholarship, becoming Gallaudet’s first black student. He became the first black student to earn a bachelor’s degree when he graduated with a degree in education in 1954. He earned two master’s degrees, one in education from Eastern Michigan University in 1955 and, and the other in Christian Mission from Seattle Pacific College in Washington State in 1956.
Foster became interested in being a missionary after meeting a Jamaican missionary as a teenager. With encouragement from Gallaudet president Leonard Elstad, Foster established the Christian Mission for Deaf Africans (today the Christian Mission for the Deaf) in Detroit in 1956. He went on speaking tours around the world, including twenty-five African countries to raise funds for schools for the Deaf in Africa.
The following year, Foster went to Africa where there were only twelve schools for the Deaf in the Maghreb region of North Africa and in apartheid South Africa. Foster established the first schools for the Deaf in Ghana, Nigeria, Liberia. Over the next decades, Foster established many schools across the continent, from Senegal, Zaire, Kenya, to Congo. He taught, trained teachers, educated the public, and advised government officials. In addition to schools, he – and later his German wife Berta – also established Deaf churches, Sunday schools, youth camps, and teacher training facilities. His efforts led Gallaudet to welcome the first students from Foster’s schools in the mid-1960s.
For his work, Foster received many awards, including the Man of the Year award from Alpha Sigma Pi in 1962, an honorary doctorate in Humane Letters from Gallaudet in 1970, the Edward Miner Gallaudet Award from Gallaudet College Alumni Association (GCAA) in 1975, and the Medallion Award from Seattle Pacific University in 1982.
Foster died in a plane crash in Rwanda in December 1987 while traveling to Kenya. The Christian Mission for the Deaf continues to crate more schools and other facilities for Deaf people in Africa. In 2004, Gallaudet University named an auditorium in honor of Foster, to recognize his role as “Father of Deaf Education in Africa,” and his work. The Gallaudet University Museum includes an exhibit about Foster.
Juliette Gordon Low (October 31, 1860-1927) was a deaf woman who established the Girl Scouts in the United States.
Juliette Magill Kinzie Gordon was born in Savannah Georgia and, after several ear injuries as a child and young adult, she began losing her hearing at seventeen, and became almost totally deaf as an adult. She married Englishman William Mackay Low, the brother of a friend from boarding school in 1886. The couple spent their time in Savannah and England. The marriage soon deteriorated and by 1905, the couple was in the process of divorcing, but William Low died before it was finalized.
In 1912, while in England, she met Sir Robert Baden-Powell, who had recently founded the Boy Scouts, and was interested in creating a the Girl Guides similar organization for girls. This inspired Low who returned to the United States and established the Girl Guides. The first meeting of eighteen girls, was diverse, including girls from many cultural, ethnic, and class backgrounds. When Low returned to England six months later, there were six troops in Savannah.
In 1913, membership expanded to other states and therefore had to create a National Headquarters in Washington DC, which moved to New York in 1916. The organization also changed its name to Girl Scouts and published the first handbook: How Girls Can Help Their Country, adapted from the British Girl Guides handbook, How Girls Can Help to Build Up the Empire, written by Agnes Baden-Powell, Baden-Powell’s sister.
While the Girl Scouts emphasized teaching girls the skills to be homemakers, including cooking, preserving food, take care of the sick, gardening and identifying edible foods, Low also taught career training, from typing, telegraphy, and farming. Girl Scouts also taught about citizenship, the Constitution, history, and geography. As World War I neared, semaphore and Morse code were added. In 1920, the Girl Scouts established Low’s birthday, October 31, as Girl Scouts’ Founder’s Day.
After Low died in 1927 from breast cancer, her friends established the Juliette Low World Friendship Fund, which finances Girl Scout projects worldwide. She is memorialized on a postage stamp, schools, and even an opera. In addition to being inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame, President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012. Her birthplace was designated as a registered National Historic Landmark in 1965.