Matthew Scott Moore

Deaf American Monograph
Volume 46 (1996), “Deafness: Historical Perspectives,” contained Matthew’s essay.

The Great Treasure Hunt:

What we can learn from researching “Deaf History”

History is a record of events. Biography is a record of a single person’s life. It is the intimate human dimension of history–focusing on the person in the context of his or her times and circle of acquaintances. A good biography (I’m thinking, in particular, of the beefy book-length ones) is enormously rewarding. It evokes the feeling of character, of presence, and suggests what made this particular person outstanding, and what internal and external forces provided the impetus. Indeed, biography can be (and should be) just as entertaining as fiction, more thrilling, and more enlightening.

I recently undertook a formidable task: to publish a thoroughly-revised and expanded version of Great Deaf Americans. The original version, by Robert F. Panara and his son John Panara, was published by T.J. Publishers in 1983. By the time I picked up the project, it had gone out of print. Since I decided to have each chapter illustrated with photos or authentic portraits, this necessitated contacting dozens of sources. I also contacted each living profile in the revised listing. And what an adventure that was! The warmth and interest of many of the people I communicated with–the profiles themselves, and the librarians, archivists, colleagues, relatives, and friends who aided me. The occasional hoity-toity rudeness of a respondent who didn’t want to cooperate. The sting of disappointment at not finding what I needed. The excitement at locating a new source of photos. The fascinating remarks made by the profiles, many of whom are still active in their careers. The challenge of fitting it all neatly into the allotted space.

I recognized that it would be impossible to provide more than a sampling of achievers in one volume. Nonetheless, I wanted to provide a fuller and more representative selection than the original 33 profiles of the first edition. More women and a better ethnic/racial variety–Black, Hispanic, Asian. I wanted readers to see that deaf achievers come from all sorts of backgrounds and represent all manner of educational approaches and communication modes–ASL-Deaf, oral, late-deaf, and "eclectic."

WHY BOTHER? Why write about long-dead deaf people, including those whose work has been forgotten? Why should laypeople and schoolchildren study them?

For one thing, we gain a sense of past and place. Communities do not spring up out of nowhere. The American Deaf community has its roots in the earliest years of the republic. Its evolution, and its contributions to mainstream American culture (i.e., Deaf Heritage) is a fascinating story in itself.

Studying the lives of deaf achievers can satisfy our curiosity–to a point–about how deaf people communicated, how they raised their families and made livings, and how they functioned among other deaf and in the hearing community.

How did deaf people acquire an education before the public-school/deaf-school systems were set up? What if they couldn’t go to a school for the deaf? Suppose their parents were opposed to their children’s learning to sign? What then?

HOME SCHOOLING: In a society where illiteracy was widespread among hearing people, home schooling and intensive self-education were far more common than they are now. For most of us, education still begins at home. Frank G. Bowe’s parents taught him to read. So did Dr. Donald L. Ballantyne’s. Henry Kisor learned from a maverick teacher of the deaf, Doris Irene Mirrielees, who stressed the early acquisition of reading and writing skills–by training mothers.

Literacy, as we all know, is a major obstacle to be conquered. But the rewards are infinite. Many achievers have noted that they loved to read: e.g., Roy Kay Holcomb, Bonnie Poitras Tucker, Frank Bowe, Regina Olson Hughes. Reading made the complexities and frustrations of growing up deaf more bearable. Or it was simply a joy. Kisor made an insightful statement: "I learned to read at an early age, and grew to love reading; this was how I learned the subtleties of English. It is worth mentioning that every deaf person, whether oral, signing or bilingual, I have met who is proficient in written English has said the same thing–he or she learned to read early."

But how typical of the general deaf population are literary deaf people? Can one succeed as a deaf person with average or weak literacy skills? Of course. Not all successful hearing people are verbally articulate or have outstanding literacy skills. Some are "mediocre" or "substandard." There is no "typical" deaf person. Everyone is different. All of us have strengths; all of us have gifts. Morris Broderson didn’t finish high school. He was accepted as a special art student at USC when he was 16. Reticent and quiet, he prefers to let his richly textured, haunting images speak for him.

Parental involvement is an important factor in deaf people’s success. A number of successful deaf people have had hearing parents who, for whatever reasons (or no logical reason at all), were opposed to letting their children learn sign language. On the other hand, some hearing families have been very supportive of their deaf children, very positive about ASL–e.g., Marlee Matlin’s family. And deaf parents have exerted a powerful influence on their children–e.g., Peggy and Al Hlibok, all of whose children became well-known in the Deaf community.

THE ATTITUDE FACTOR: One thing I learned from this undertaking is the importance of attitude. If there’s one outstanding characteristic of any achiever, it is a positive attitude. Determination. Successful deaf people are determined to succeed. They refuse to let circumstances beat them. If they ever feel defeated, it isn’t for long. They are self-motivated. They have an "inner drive" that impels them to seek a better life, a more active and educated one, pursue a vocation, or launch a new venture. Especially if it’s "never been done before" or "can’t be done."

But hardship is a part of our experience, too. If you study the lives of achievers, you will see how often their experiences included frustration, loneliness, isolation, depression, pain, divorce, trauma, despair. Some have had drug or alcohol problems. But no great person succumbs to addictions. S/he conquers them.

The lives of deaf achievers exemplify the truism: "We are not free to choose our circumstances, but we are free to choose how to respond." All deaf people are subject to blatant and subtle prejudice. Discrimination is still rampant. Successful achievers respond to this and to other devastating experiences–acoustic tumors, communicative deprivation–in the most positive way. Achievers don’t make a practice of whining. They’re too busy. And they don’t accept restrictions placed on them by other people. Some make dramatic career changes as adults, or work in several "untraditional" fields.

WOMEN’S WORK: Deaf women have endured double oppression: being female and deaf. Yet having to shoulder this double burden can make women tougher, stronger, more determined to succeed. Bonnie Poitras Tucker was a thirty-something housewife with two children when her lawyer husband announced that he wanted a divorce. And why? Because she was deaf, and he was tired of putting up with it. In her autobiography, The Feel of Silence, Tucker makes some telling comments about gender roles. Many successful deaf women have to fight alone, or they marry supportive deaf men (Linda Bove and Ed Waterstreet, Regina Olson and Professor Frederick H. Hughes, Agatha Tiegel and Olof Hanson). Eliza Boardman Clerc made a life for herself in the traditional parameters of the 19th-century female role as a loving wife, mother, housekeeper, hostess. She was a partner in the first recorded Deaf marriage in the States. It was an extraordinarily happy marriage.

Laura Redden Searing married a hearing man, but her most famous exploits–particularly her reportage–date from before her marriage. Regina Hughes fulfilled the role of gracious, quiet "faculty wife" on Gallaudet’s Kendall Green campus–and, off-campus, enjoyed a long and successful career as a botanical artist at the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History.

NEW DEFINITIONS: During the past centuries until fairly recently, many infants, children, and young adults contracted deadly viral diseases, one of which was cerebrospinal meningitis, also known as spinal meningitis, "brain fever," and "spotted fever." If they didn’t die outright, they were often deafened; a few were also blinded in one eye, as were Edmund Booth and Agatha Tiegel Hanson. Many of these became deaf after learning to speak, and in some cases, read and write. Other leading causes are maternal rubella (prenatal exposure to the rubella virus), trauma, and Neurofibromatosis Type II. Congenitally deaf persons (that is, from deaf families) account for a small but significant percentage of the deaf population.

While the ratio of early-deafened people is shrinking, that of late-deafened adults is growing. Contemporary late-deafened achievers include Michael Chatoff, I. King Jordan, Kathie Skyer Hering, Bill Graham, and Judy Viera Tingley. Late-deafened people have contributed to our community, and have much to give. Because they come from a diversity of backgrounds and experiences, we have had to radically redefine "the Deaf experience" to include them. Our community is not limited to products of standard "deaf education." We benefit from the diversity.

SIGNS & SOUNDS: Now, ideology (communications methodologies, etc.), as we know, is a sticky bog of controversy. In GDA-2, I wanted to emphasize achievement over ideology. These persons have had impact on both communities. Their stories make a strong argument, I hope, for maintaining a continuum of high-quality education and support services for deaf people of all ages.

From them, we can learn that the boundaries between "Signing" and "Oral" are not that absolute. There is a vast difference between abstract ideology and the real lives of deaf people. Ideologically, John Carlin was a terrible snob. In his public writings, he jeered at deaf people and sign language, and proclaimed the superiority of oralism. Yet he was a skilled signer, and, by advocating higher education for deaf people, helped make Gallaudet University a reality. Robert Weitbrecht, who functioned largely within "Hearing" parameters, made significant contributions to both Deaf and Hearing culture. Jack Levesque and Martin L. A. Sternberg had no early exposure to Deaf culture. Sternberg was mainstreamed; Levesque attended Clarke School for the Deaf. Yet both became ASL users. Sternberg compiled the monumental ASL Dictionary; Levesque became a leading Deaf advocate. Even Donald L. Ballantyne, with an impeccably oral-mainstreamed background (prep school and Princeton), learned ASL and taught chemistry at Gallaudet College part-time.

Sign language, an abomination to some hearing (and, let it not be forgotten, deaf folks), is a source of immense pride and pleasure to many Deaf achievers. some of whom have built their careers around their skills as ASL performers: Bernard Bragg, Linda Bove, Phyllis Frelich, and the ever-controversial Marlee Matlin.

Starting out in a Deaf family confers certain advantages, chiefly immediate access to communication. Deaf children often become the leaders at school–asking pesky questions, rebelling against foolish regimentation, questioning the way things are done. (E.g., Gertrude S. Galloway, Bruce Hlibok, Greg Hlibok).

For those from "Hearing" backgrounds, choosing to acknowledge, to understand one’s deafness, can make it a source of motivation, belonging, identity, joy, and pride. Jack Levesque, for example, considers being deaf "the greatest gift he could ever have received." A thought to make some unschooled readers recoil in horror, perhaps. But a statement of affirmation. Of community.

Significantly, the success of the TTY (and the birth of TDI) was achieved through collaboration between the Signing and Oralist factions of the Deaf community (as represented by the Bell Association and the NAD). So the barriers are not always as formidable and impassable as they appear. Even nonsigners can find common ground with ASL-Deaf, and ways to communicate. Henry Kisor, a lifelong oralist who doesn’t know sign language, has a passion for flying. He joined the fledgling International Deaf Pilots Association and edits its quarterly newsletter. Not all deaf pilots are ASL-Deaf. But all deaf pilots share many of the same concerns.

VANISHING ACT: As I learned from trying to research the life and work of newspaper editor/publisher William Wolcott Beadell (who invented the classified ads), the ephemeral nature of newspaper work creates difficulties–vanishing writings, a paucity of information and photos. Deaf journalism is a story in itself. But many publications of the "Little Paper Family" are no longer easily accessible. Writers of books were luckier–their works are far more easily accessible through libraries–but even so, it can be immensely difficult to excavate information. (I found surprisingly few images of George Hyde, the eminent Plains Indian historian of Omaha.) Deaf people have written books that are gathering dust in dim corners of libraries, waiting to be rediscovered.

With the publication of Deaf Heritage in 1979, Jack R. Gannon disproved the notion that deaf people cannot write their own history. Dr. Clifton F. Carbin recently published Deaf Heritage in Canada–another monumental "Deaf" undertaking. Deaf people are writing and publishing all manner of books, starting new publications, and doing intriguing things on computers.

DUSTING OFF: Working on a book like this was thrilling. Here was an opportunity to bring to the attention of the public the careers and achievements of several dozen achievers, many of whom may not be well-known outside of our community, or even within. For some hearing people, the Deaf community begins with Marlee Matlin and ends with Heather Whitestone. Both of them are included in the book, along with others, equally deserving and less "flashy." I enjoyed the opportunity to blow a bit of dust off their obscurity.

Historical research teaches us about the importance of distinguishing myth from fact. Back then, records weren’t kept as meticulously as they are now. Did "Dummy" Hoy really invent baseball signals? Or is it a myth? There is good evidence dating to well before the turn of the century that he did so. But a myth lives independently of facts. Still, one can have a myth that turns out to contain the essential grain of truth.

Occasionally, getting the truth can be tricky. A particularly useful article by Mrs. J.B. Chandler in the June 1929 issue of The Silent Worker concludes with this remark, an imaginary quote reflecting Marr’s attitude: "Being a philosopher, it is easy to imagine him saying, ‘God closed my ears to the petty noises of the world that I might the better vision beautiful buildings."’ But the 100th Anniversary Book (1945) of the Tennessee School for the Deaf (another useful item) repeats the quote as though it were genuinely Marr’s: "He was a philosopher, saying ‘God closed my ears..." (I would have fallen into that trap myself, had I not doublechecked.) That’s how misstatements become entrenched as "fact." One has to sift through the masses of material carefully to get as close to the original sources as possible. Eternal vigilance is the price of accuracy.

VARIETY SHOW: Show-business personalities almost always get more publicity than scholars and teachers, which is why I. King Jordan and his family were hard-put to cope with their sudden elevation to celebrity status. We have a wealth of material on Marlee Matlin, but almost nothing on W.W. Beadell, and Francis Perew Gibson, who led the National Fraternal Society of the Deaf during the Depression years and helped safeguard the right of deaf people to drive cars. In fact, I had to drop Gibson from the book because I couldn’t locate enough material, and no one seemed to have any photos.

We’re still being asked questions such as: "Can deaf people be pilots?" The answer, of course, is "yes." Cal Rodgers, who may have been severely deaf, piloted the Vin Fiz, a rickety Wright biplane, in the first transcontinental American flight in 1911. (Since we know little about Rodgers as a person, we can’t be sure, but we can make some strong guesses.) The irrepressible Nellie Zabel Willhite, who was "openly Deaf," was South Dakota’s first female pilot and, in 1928, became the first deaf person to hold a pilot’s license. (Rodgers had been long forgotten.) Rhulin Thomas, a Linotypist at the Washington Evening Star, made an historic transcontinental flight in 1947. And more deaf people are becoming pilots here and in Europe, where deaf people have fewer civil rights.

With the arts, I’m happy to say that the problem is abundance, not scarcity. The recent publication of a beautiful coffee-table book on Douglas Tilden, and the rediscovery of several crates of his works, signal a revival of interest in this great Californian. Gallaudet University has a splendid collection of Cadwallader Washburn’s drypoint etchings. I enjoyed learning about the whimsical and religious sculptures of Hillis Arnold, who is still fondly remembered at the college where he used to teach. Likewise, Regina Hughes and her exploits are warmly recalled by her colleagues at the Smithsonian. Morris Broderson is renowned for his brilliant multimedia paintings. Chuck Baird is an accomplished actor-painter. And that’s just the tiniest sampling of Deaf talent!

Pioneer performers like Bernard Bragg, Phyllis Frelich, Linda Bove, and Julianna Fjeld struggled during the early years of the National Theatre of the Deaf. Their success "blazed the trail" for others. All of them are still busy. The NTD inspired the creation of dozens of local and regional theaters of the deaf (here and abroad)–an impressive proliferation when you realize that not so long ago, there were no professional prospects for deaf performers. In contrast, Marlee Matlin got her start at the Children’s Theater of the Deaf, which is now the flourishing CenterLight Theatre.

Consider the ingenuity of Ernest Marshall, a filmmaker operating with a shoestring budget, a cast of volunteers, and some extraordinarily creative approaches to performing. His ASL films, for all their shoestring-budgetness, are still enjoyable and entertaining, and preserve everyday ASL–which at the time, hadn’t yet been recognized as a language–with some unique features that have since fallen out of use. So his films have linguistic as well as historic and cinematic interest.

Some of our heroes and heroines are public figures–leaders, advocates, and administrators such as Fred Schreiber, Boyce R. Williams, Gertrude S. Galloway, Frank Turk, Glenn B. Anderson, I. King Jordan, Jack Levesque, and Robert Davila. They may have done much of their work quietly, in their offices, but they have had positive impact on our lives.

Many of us have had the opportunity to watch history being made–during DPN Week. All of the four student leaders are currently active in the community–which comes as no surprise. Their lives were forever changed by the impact of DPN.

Teachers–the unsung heroes of our community–have not gone wholly unrecognized. The tradition was started here by Laurent Clerc. His pupil, William Willard, founded the Indiana School for the Deaf. The story of ISD’s founding is instructive. Without degrees, without teaching certificates, without telecommunications, William and Eliza Willard managed to do the seemingly impossible in a matter of months–rounded up a number of deaf students, opened a school in rented premises, and got state support. ISD was one of the many "satellite" schools founded by Clerc’s students–but the first to be founded by a deaf person. Yet the distance between its first and second deaf superintendents (the second being Eddy F. Laird) took nearly a century to traverse.

What about the really nontraditional fields: medicine and law? Deaf people have made contributions to both. Although Dr. Ballantyne chose an alternative route (medical research), Frank P. Hochman was able to get into medical school, and in 1976 became the first deaf person to earn an M.D. degree. Lowell Myers, Michael Chatoff, and Bonnie Tucker are successful lawyers. Precedents have been, and are constantly being, set.

THOUGHTS: Today, "hero" seems to become synonymous with "sports star." But one of our greatest heroes was a teacher, Laurent Clerc. His influence has been immeasurable.

What makes a "hero"? What is the intangible quality that makes a great person great? How do we determine who is "great" and who is merely "good"? Time tells. Great people are not always "nice" people.

CARRYING ON: Biographical and historical research should be an ongoing concern in our community. It is not only the domain of the eminent achievers and academics, but of regular folks–our deaf Aunt Millies and Cousin Steves too. The lives of grassroots-deaf people are worth recording.

What can be done to preserve Deaf history? Encourage older deaf people to put their experiences on videotape–their signs, their memories, their thoughts, their personalities. Record them. Teachers can assign students to interview older Deaf people. Ask them to talk about their experiences in school, growing up, their parents and siblings, working, experiencing the Depression or World War II, postwar years, making a living, raising families, experiencing prejudice, socializing. Then have the students transcribe the video into printed text. Make notes of ASL usages that are no longer current. Ask to see their photo albums and scrapbooks, their memorabilia. Ask them to talk about the people in their photos, about the memorabilia. Photograph the memorabilia; make copies of their photos and include these with the interview.

We have the responsibility of preserving our heritage, improving the holdings at deaf-school museums, the Gallaudet University Archives, etc. There is a paucity of information on some achievers, and we want as complete a record as possible. (The Gallaudet Archives would love to have more pictures of "hard-to-find" people.)

There is much more to be done–chronicling the contributions of forgotten deaf people, neglected arenas such as the Deaf Gay/Lesbian, Hispanic, Asian-Pacific, Black, Jewish communities. And the lives of unassuming deaf "grassroots" citizens. In learning about them, we can learn much about our past, our identities, and our dreams.

–Matthew S. Moore
Publisher,
DEAF LIFE
President, MSM Productions, Ltd./Deaf Life Press

Go Back to Clippings

Detailed sitemap | Short sitemap

Note from the DEAF.com staff: why this homepage was created
Copyright © 2006-2014, Matthew Scott Moore. All Rights Reserved.

Go to main page