The Education of Deaf and Blind African Americans in Virginia, 1909-2008
by G. Jasper Conner
Editor’s Note: This article adopts the common distinction of describing people as Deaf if they participate in Deaf culture by using sign language and associating with culturally Deaf people while using deaf to describe those who are not part of this Deaf cultural world.
In 1895, Mary Ritter, a recent graduate of the Virginia School for the Deaf and the Blind (VSDB) in Staunton, received a proposal from a local mother of a deaf girl. This mother, whose name was never recorded, had tried to enroll her daughter at VSDB, but was turned down by the school’s superintendent because the school admitted only white students. Ritter’s alma mater was founded in 1839 to serve blind and deaf white children, but Virginia chose not to provide similar educational opportunities for African American children thirty years after the close of the Civil War. Instead, the superintendent sent this mother to Mary Ritter with the suggestion that she teach the girl in exchange for her mother taking in the Ritter family laundry, a proposal which Ritter accepted. Perhaps motivated by the lengths this mother went through to bring language and education to her daughter, William C. Ritter, Mary’s husband and also a recent VSDB graduate, embarked on a crusade to establish a deaf and blind school for Black children in the state (Bass, 1949; Johnson, 1957; Conner, 2019).
William Ritter, then president of the Virginia Association of the Deaf (VAD), pressed his organization to issue a resolution calling for the establishment of a school for Virginia’s African American deaf and blind children. Judging by the sparse documentation of this campaign within VAD records and the weakness of the group at the time, William Ritter was likely the main organizer of the effort to establish what would become the Virginia State School for Colored Deaf and Blind (Conner, 2019).
The first bill proposing the establishment of the school died in committee in 1902, the same year legislators enacted an anti-democratic constitution that stripped Black men in the state of their voting rights (Alexander, 2002). Eventually a bill was passed in 1906 with the assistance of Harry Houston, a member of the Virginia House of Delegates and Ritter’s employer. Less motivated by the desire to teach disabled children, Virginia legislators believed that the school would prepare “the children so afflicted to receive sufficient training to become self-supporting (Public Welfare, 1923).”
Despite this, the school was given no appropriation, so the newly created Board of Visitors worked for another three years before the school was opened in 1909. Ritter initially sought to establish the school at the Hampton Institute and then at Virginia State College, but neither facility was able to take on the task. He believed that communities would be excited to host a state institution, which came with both prestige and state appropriations, but he also clarified that the Board of Visitors “has no desire to push the school […] upon any community,” acknowledging that many communities would be opposed to housing a school for Black children. The Virginia State School for Colored Deaf and Blind Children opened with William Ritter selected as the superintendent, marking him as one of the few Deaf men to found a school, and the only to do so for Black children. Ritter clarified to the public that the school “is a free public school for those colored children of the State who are too deaf or too blind to receive instruction in the common schools” while emphasizing that the school could not serve those who were “physically or mentally unfit.” Mary Alice Ritter did not live to see the establishment of the school, though William’s next wife, Leslie Harrison Ritter, a graduate of the North Carolina School for the Deaf, was one of the school’s first teachers. William Ritter would serve as the superintendent of the school until 1937, when he continued to live on the campus for a few years after his retirement (“Open School,” 1909; “Seek Sight,” 1908; Bass, 1949; Johnson, 1957; King, 1984).
William Ritter and, to a lesser extent, his wife Mary, are remembered as influential Deaf Virginians who served the interests of the state’s Black deaf and blind children (Conner, 2019). Notably, Virginia was very nearly the last Southern state to provide for the education of deaf and blind Black children. Mississippi established a school for Black deaf children two decades prior to the Virginia State School and only West Virginia and Louisiana founded similar institutions after Virginia, in 1926 and 1938 respectively (McCaskill et al, 2011). Most schools for deaf and blind children in the South were founded under Reconstruction governments that had Black legislators and a newfound interest in publicly financed education. William Ritter’s fight to establish a school for Black deaf and blind children, by contrast, was waged in a climate of increasingly anti-Black sentiment and culminated after the 1902 constitution was promulgated in a successful effort to undermine Black electoral power in the state.
The Ritters, along with early teachers at the Hampton school, Aumon and Mary Bass, who were also graduates of VSDB, worked hard to support the school. Ritter is reported to have spent Thanksgiving in 1911, canvassing a Black neighborhood in Richmond, where he convinced several parents living in “the direst poverty” to send their children to the school. William Ritter is even reported to have taken a fifty percent pay decrease from his position at the Richmond Times Dispatch to assume leadership of the school. Ritter’s work running the school also served to provide decades of stable employment for himself and other graduates of the white school for deaf and blind children (“Official Finds,” 1911; Johnson, 1957).
Virginia’s segregated school system did more than separate students along racial lines, it also maintained an unequal educational system where schools for Black children received less funding than those for white children. The Virginia State School received a paltry initial appropriation of only $25,000 to purchase land, build facilities, and operate for the first year, while VSDB, the school for white students, received $50,000 the next year simply to operate. Ritter’s work ensured that deaf and blind African American children received the common elementary school education which was already available to their peers. While white students at the Virginia School for the Deaf and the Blind received vocational training in cabinet making, book repair, cosmetology, printing, woodworking, and even watch repair, Black students on the other side of the state were largely prepared for lives as agricultural and domestic workers. Ritter worked tirelessly to secure a school for Black deaf and blind children, but his decision to offer an unequal vocational program ensured that his students were largely prepared for low-wage work unlike students from VSDB (“Seek Sight, 1908; Bass, 1949; Charities, 1910; Johnson, 1957).
Students at the school led unique lives compared to most other children in the state. For several decades, students spent the entirety of the school year on campus, including the Christmas holiday. The state began sending children home for a ten-day Christmas break in the 1940s, but as late as 1957, only students living near the school were permitted to visit their families for Thanksgiving and Easter breaks. This cost-saving practice, common throughout residentials schools for disabled children, cut expenses for the state but certainly left students isolated from their families. While the school celebrated these occasions with the children, separation from family members was difficult for children, particularly the young. Despite this, many students maintained regular correspondence with their relatives and many family members visited the school to see their children.
Under Ritter’s tenure, students attended classes from 8:30 a.m. until 3:30 p.m. After classes students engaged in vocational training, which for boys largely consisted of work on the school’s farm. Like all vocational programs on the campus, this work helped curb the school’s cost, though the older boys were paid for their work. Deaf students at the school often communicated in sign language, though many of their teachers often learned the language on the job, hampering the education of these students. Residential schools for deaf and blind children in the South tended to lack adequate space for students, a problem magnified by unequal funding at Virginia State School (“Personals,” 1949; “Recent Visitors,” 1954; Johnson, 1957; King, 1984; Wright, 1999).
In 1940, William Whitehead, a former administrator at St. Paul’s Polytechnic Institute, was appointed as the school’s first Black superintendent. During his twenty-year tenure, the school transformed, earning him an honorary Doctorate from Hampton University (“Miscellaneous, 1949). Whitehead oversaw a shift toward mostly Black teachers, a change which coincided with the removal of most deaf teachers. He also mandated that all teachers have a minimum level of graduate school training in special education, with most teachers receiving this training at nearby Hampton Institute, now Hampton University.
William Whitehead also overhauled the vocational training program at the school, increasing course options by including certification programs in piano tuning, upholstery, and barbering, among others. This decision demonstrated his confidence in the ability of Black disabled people to learn trades and secure jobs beyond the bottom of the wage scale (Johnson, 1957). Enrollment at the school grew under his leadership, tripling from about 70 students his first year to 215 in 1961, his last year in charge. During this period, the school also officially changed its name to the Virginia State School and increased extracurricular activities including a basketball team, which played residential schools for deaf and blind African Americans as well as local schools (“History Made,” 1962).
Virginia first began to comply with the Brown v. Board ruling over ten years after the initial case was decided, initiating a trickle of Black students across the state to Staunton in 1965. The pages of the Virginia Guide, the monthly periodical of the Virginia School for the Deaf and the Blind which included reports from the administration, student writings, and pictures from sporting and social events, provide some insight into life of students at the school. The first photograph of a Black student appears in 1970 when Sammy Harris is pictured with fellow classmates on the honor roll. From 1970 onward, Black students began to appear in the Virginia Guide, sitting on Santa’s lap, on field trips to Jamestown, and in the background of a shot of Governor Holton’s visit in 1971. That same year, Jerry Long, a blind African American student, wrote that “I have experienced many injustices because of my race. I have experienced the slurring remarks and the taunts of my white schoolmates. I know what it is like to feel alone when I am in a crowd, of being denied the close companionship of my white schoolmates (Conner, 2019).” Fred Yates, a white Deaf alumnus of VSDB who became assistant principal of the Deaf Department at the school admitted that William Whiteside, one of the first Black Deaf students to integrate VSDB, faced resentment from white students which made attending the school difficult (McCaskill et al, 2011). The experiences of these two children closely mirrored that of students like Carol Swann, who recalled desegregating Richmond’s public schools as defined by “little tortures each day” (Daugherity, 2016). Joe Shinpaugh, the Superintendent of VSDB, acknowledged this social ostracism in 1973 when he wrote a letter to the Black students who would be integrating the Staunton school as a group, assuring parents that the “Hampton School is transferring 57 students to our school so your child will have some friends here (Conner, 2019).” That year, Virginia finally engaged in meaningful desegregation of the two schools, enacting a plan which placed the larger population of deaf high school students in Stanton and the much smaller group of blind upper level students at the Hampton school.
Racial integration of Virginia’s two schools for deaf and blind children began the slow process of the Virginia State School’s decline. This is partly because it coincided with the passage of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act in 1975, which was reauthorized in 1990 as the Individuals with Disabilities Act. The law’s mandate that children be educated in the “least restrictive environment” facilitated a move away from residential schools by specifying that educators should strive to teach disabled children in classes with their typically developing peers at schools close to home. Throughout the last quarter of the twentieth century, both the Hampton and Staunton schools saw population declines, with the Hampton school turning to a specialization in students with multiple disabilities in the late 1970s (Cox, 1978).
In 2000, the school that had begun as the Virginia State School for Colored Deaf and Blind Children became the Virginia School for the Deaf, Blind, and Multi-Disabled at Hampton, its fifth name during a century of existence. In 2006, the state began merging the schools by moving the last students at the Hampton school to VSDB in Staunton, a plan finalized in 2008 when the school in Hampton finally closed its doors (Giancola, 1977; “One Hundredth,” 2006, “VSDB Plans,” 2008).
20 Students Enter V.S.S. (1962, October). The Virginia State School Bulletin 11(1), 1, Little Paper Family, Gallaudet University Archives, Washington, D.C., https://gaislandora.wrlc.org/islandora/object/vastatebulletin%3A17
Alexander, A. F. (2002). Race man: The rise and fall of the “Fighting Editor,” John Mitchell Jr. University of Virginia Press.
Bass, A. R. (1949). History of the education of the deaf in Virginia. Virginia School for the Deaf and the Blind.
Conner, G. J. (2019). “An organization for the welfare of all the deaf:” The role of school segregation in fostering racially homogenous deaf cultures in Jim crow Virginia. In White wobblies and black strikers/ “An organization for the welfare of all of the deaf.” [Unpublished master’s thesis]. College of William & Mary.
Cox, Karen (1978, November 9). “Virginia School Plans To Improve Access for Handicapped,” The Daily Press, 13.
Daugherity, B. J. (2016). Keep on keeping on: The NAACP and the implementation of Brown V. Board of Education in Virginia. University of Virginia Press.
Giancola, P. (1977, November 16). “Staunton school seeks all deaf, blind,” The Times-Herald, 17.
The graduates. (1956, May). The Virginia State School Bulletin 5(6), 1, Little Paper Family, Gallaudet University Archives, Washington, D.C., https://gaislandora.wrlc.org/islandora/object/vastatebulletin%3A42
History made at V.S.S. (1962, March). The Virginia State School Bulletin 10(2), 1, Little Paper Family, Gallaudet University Archives, Washington, D.C., https://gaislandora.wrlc.org/islandora/object/vastatebulletin%3A62
Johnson, E. W. (1957). The history of Virginia State School. [Master’s thesis, Virginia State College]. Virginia State University.
King, R. C. (1984). Chronology: “Window to the past,” 1906-1984: Virginia School for the Deaf and the Blind at Hampton. Virginia School for the Deaf and the Blind at Hampton.
Koehler, J. M. (1927, May). “Deaf Founders of Schools for the Deaf,” The Silent Worker 39(8), 264-266.
McCaskill, C., Lucas, C., Bayley, R., & Hill, J.C. (2011). The hidden treasure of black ASL: Its history and structure. Gallaudet University Press.
Miscellaneous. (1949, November). American Annals of the Deaf 94(5), 520.
Official finds abject poverty. (1911, January 3). Times Dispatch, (Richmond, Va.).
Open school for colored blind. (1909, August 15). Times Dispatch, (Richmond, Va.), 18.
The one-hundredth commencement: Virginia School for the Deaf, Blind, and Multi-Disabled at Hampton. (2006). Virginia School for the Deaf, Blind, and Multi-Disabled at Hampton, Correspondence and subject files of the Superintendent of the Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind at Hampton, Record Group 51684, Box 18, Accession 51684, State government records collection, The Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia.
Personals. (1949, April). The Virginia State School Bulletin 1(2), 4.
Recent visitors. (1954, February). The Virginia State School Bulletin 3(6), 3.
Seek sight for new state institution. (1908, March 29). Times Dispatch, (Richmond, Va.).
State Board of Charities and Corrections. (1910). Second Annual Report of the State Board of Charities and Corrections to the Governor of Virginia for the Year Ending September 30, 1910. https://hdl.handle.net/2027/njp.32101066997915
State Board of Public Welfare. (1924) First Biennial Report of the State Board of Public Welfare for the Two Years Ending September 30, 1923. https://hdl.handle.net/2027/njp.32101066998129
VSDB plans take shape. (2008, May 22). Daily News Leader, 3.
Wright, M. H. (1999). Sounds like home: Growing up black and deaf in the south. Gallaudet University Press.
For futher reading
Anderson, G. B. (2006). Still I rise: The enduring legacy of black deaf Arkansas before & after integration. Arkansas Association of the Deaf.
Bass, A. R. & Wait, D. (2014) History of the education of the deaf in Virginia in two parts, 1839-1948 and 1949-2014. RR Donnelley.
Baynton, D. (1996). Forbidden signs: American culture and campaign against sign language. University of Chicago Press.
Black ASL Project – http://blackaslproject.gallaudet.edu/Sites/Virginia.html
Buchanan, R. M. (1999). Illusions of equality: Deaf Americans in school and factory, 1850-1950. Gallaudet University Press.
Burch, S. (2002). Signs of resistance: American deaf cultural history, 1900 to world war II. New York University Press.
Burch, S. & Joyner, H. (2007). Unspeakable: The story of Junius Wilson. University of North Carolina Press.
Hairston, E. & Smith, L. (1983). Black and deaf in America: Are we that different. T. J. Publishers.
Jowers-Barber, S. (2008). The struggle to educate black deaf schoolchildren in Washington, D.C. In Greenwald, B. H. & Van Cleve, J. H. (Eds.), A fair chance in the race of life: The role of Gallaudet University in deaf history (pp. 113-131). Gallaudet University Press.
National Black Deaf Advocates – https://www.nbda.org/content/black-deaf-history.
Opening of the Virginia State School for Colored Deaf and Blind Children, 1909. Social Welfare History Project.
Padden, C, & Humphries, T. (2005). Inside Deaf Culture. Harvard University Press.
Wright, M. H. (2005). Far from home: Memories of world war II and afterward. Gallaudet University Press.
G. Jasper Conner is the recipient of a 2022 VCU Publishing Research Award.
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