At least 24 black deaf students who attended a segregated school on the grounds of Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. in the early 1950s never received their high school diploma.
Seventy years after they were first able to go to school, students and their descendants will be honored on Saturday during a graduation ceremony hosted by Gallaudet University, a liberal arts university for the deaf and hard of hearing.
“They went to school and they had nothing to show. And that, I’m sure, disappointed them. They were devastated by the experience,” said Carolyn McCaskill, a professor at Gallaudet University and founding director of the school’s Black Deaf Studies Center.
The event “is an important part of Gallaudet University’s ongoing commitment to acknowledge and recognize its past racial and educational injustice,” the university said in a statement.
The students who will be honored on Saturday attended grades K-12 at the Kendall School on the Gallaudet campus in the early 1950s and were only able to attend the school after a legal battle against segregation.
Kendall was the only deaf elementary school in the city, but black deaf students were not allowed to attend and were forced to go to other schools in Pennsylvania and Maryland.
The school created a division for black deaf students after families of several black children filed a class action lawsuit against the D.C. Board of Education in 1952 and won.
The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled in their favor, stating that black deaf students cannot be sent out of state or county to receive the same education as white students.
McCaskill said the case was one of several that set the precedent for the landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 that declared school segregation unconstitutional.
According to McCaskill, while the students attended the school’s black deaf section, their “education was mostly vocational rather than academic, and they were not ready for college.”
Later, when classes at Kendall became merged, McCaskill says black deaf students were still treated differently and never received their high school diploma.
Kenneth Miller, 82, whose mother Louise B. Miller filed a class-action lawsuit, is among the few surviving students who will take part in Saturday’s ceremony.
“I want him and a few other students who were there to experience the stage walk and get their high school diploma. I want them to have that excitement,” McCaskill said.
According to McCaskill, the experiences of the 24 black deaf students who attended Kendall’s school in the early 1950s are only a small part of the history of the black deaf community.
“The Black Deaf community has a rich history,” she said. “We have stories to share and we want the whole world to know about our stories.”