WASHINGTON – Gallaudet University, the world’s premier institution for deaf and hard of hearing students, held a historic graduation ceremony July 22 on its campus to honor the 24 Black deaf students and four Black teachers of the Kendall School Division II for Negroes, which operated on the Gallaudet campus from 1952 to 1954.
Amid tears of joy, the 24 students and their descendants received high school diplomas during the ceremony conferred by Gallaudet’s Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center. The university proclaimed today “Kendall 24 Day” and issued a Board of Trustees proclamation acknowledging and apologizing for its role in the grave injustice committed against the 24 students.
“Today’s Kendall School Division II graduation ceremony was one of the most profoundly moving events here at Gallaudet during my 37 years here. It was bittersweet for the graduates and their families. It is my hope that Gallaudet will continue to heal, and that we will arrive at a place of true belonging and equity for all,” said Dr. Carolyn D. McCaskill, founding director of the Center for Black Deaf Studies.
Included in the proclamation, “Gallaudet deeply regrets the role it played in perpetuating the historic inequity, systemic marginalization, and the grave injustice committed against the Black Deaf community when Black Deaf students were excluded at Kendall School and in denying the 24 Black Deaf Kendall School students their diplomas. Gallaudet sincerely apologizes to Mary Arnold, Janice Boyd (Ruffin), Irene Brown, Darrell Chatman, Robbie Cheatham, Dorothy Howard (Miller), Robert Lee Jones, Richard King Jr., Rial Loftis, Deborah Maton, William Matthews, Donald Mayfield, Robert Milburn, Kenneth Miller, Willie Moore Jr., Clifford Ogburn, Diana Pearson (Hill), Doris Richardson, Julian Richardson, Charles Robinson, Christine Robinson, Norman Robinson, Barbara Shorter, and Dorothy Watkins (Jennings) for the wrong done when they were denied their diplomas.”
Five of the six living students –Boyd, Ogburn, Kenneth Miller, Charles Robinson and Norman Robinson – attended the graduation ceremony with their families. Also honored at this ceremony were the Black teachers, all now deceased – Mary Britts, Rubye Frye, Robert Robinson and Bessie Thornton – who were represented at the event by their family members.
The ceremony, attended by more than 300 people and livestreamed to many more, was hosted by Gallaudet University’s Center for Black Deaf Studies, the first center of its kind in the world dedicated to honoring Black Deaf history, Black Deaf contributions and Black Deaf culture.
Several special guests greeted the graduates at the event, including Dr. Monique M. Chism, undersecretary for Education at the Smithsonian Institution; Christopher D. Johnson, president of the District of Columbia National Black Deaf Advocates; and Zachary Parker, District of Columbia Council member.
“Today is an important day of recognition and also a celebration long overdue,” said Roberta J. Cordano, president of Gallaudet University. “Today is also an important step in the university’s ongoing commitment to inclusive excellence, equity and belonging. Acknowledging and owning the university’s role in past injustices is a key part of this journey and we must continue to confront our institutional history. The 24 Kendall students, their teachers and their families are central to this. While today’s ceremony in no way removes past harms and injustices or the impact of them, it is an important step to strengthen our continued path of healing.”
Louise B. Miller: A trailblazing hero of education justice for Black deaf children
From 1898 to 1905, Kendall School, a K-12 program on the campus of what is now Gallaudet University, enrolled and educated Black students.
In 1905, White parents complained about the integration of races, and Black deaf students were transferred to the Maryland School for the Colored Blind and Deaf-Mutes in Baltimore or to the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf in Philadelphia. This eliminated altogether the presence of Black students at Kendall.
Several decades later, Louise B. Miller, a District of Columbia resident and the hearing mother of four children, three of whom were deaf, asked that her oldest son Kenneth be allowed to attend Kendall. Her request was denied because Kenneth was Black. In 1952, Miller, joined by the parents of four other Black deaf children, filed and won a civil lawsuit against the District of Columbia Board of Education for the right of Black deaf children like her son to attend the school.
The court ruled that Black deaf students could not be sent outside the state or district to obtain the same education that White students were provided. This led to – rather than the acceptance of Black students into Kendall – the construction on the Gallaudet campus of the segregated Kendall School Division II for Negroes, an inferior building with fewer resources than those made available to White students.
In 1954, the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka made school segregation illegal across the nation, and the segregated school for Negroes closed. The students began to attend school with their White deaf peers.
To honor Miller’s story, the 24 students and four teachers, and as part of its ongoing work to confront its role in past wrongs and injustices, Gallaudet has committed to building The Louise B. Miller Pathways and Gardens: A Legacy to Black Deaf Children. This memorial will provide a space for reflection and healing through remembrance of all who have fought for the equality that Black deaf children deserve.
Gallaudet, federally chartered in 1864, is currently a bilingual, diverse, multicultural institution of higher education that ensures the intellectual and professional advancement of deaf, hard of hearing, and deafblind individuals through American Sign Language and English.