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Dec 9, 2022
Manuscripts – The Deborah M. Sonnenstrahl Papers, 1930s-1991
King Jordan Student Academic Center 1255
Sonnenstrahl, Deborah Meranski, 1935-
The Deborah M. Sonnenstrahl Papers, 1930s-1991
Gallaudet University Archives
Repository: Gallaudet University Archives
Call No.: MSS 209
Creator: Sonnenstrahl, Deborah Meranski, 1935-
Title: The Deborah M. Sonnenstrahl Papers, 1930s-1991
Quantity: 11 boxes (11.5 linear feet)
Abstract: Personal papers of deaf educator, art historian, artist, and lecturer Deborah M.
Sonnenstrahl. Includes correspondence, scrapbooks and photo albums, event programs, school records, and more.
Note: This document last updated November 2015.
Acquisition Information: Donated to the Archives by Dr. Deborah M. Sonnenstrahl, 1993.
Processed By: Christopher Shea, November 2015.
Processing Note: Dr. Sonnenstrahl’s original donation included some pieces of artwork by herself and other deaf artists including Betty G. Miller and Fanny Yeh. These have been added to the Archives’ art collection.
Conditions on Use and Access: This collection is open to the public with no restrictions.
Photocopies may be made for scholarly research. Note that some of the scrapbooks in series 7 are extremely fragile and must be handled with great care; these may only be copied at the discretion of the Archives staff.
Related Material in the Archives
Born in Baltimore, Maryland, on October 13, 1935, Deborah Belle Meranski, daughter of Dr. and Mrs. Israel Meranski, was deaf from birth. Her early education was exclusively oral, at the Baer School for disabled students (1940-1947) and the private Park School in Baltimore (1948-1954).
She entered Gallaudet College in 1954. Earlier in her life she had little interest in art due to the communication barriers she faced as a deaf person. But she became interested in art and art history through mandatory classes at Gallaudet, and ended up majoring in art since Gallaudet did not yet offer a major in art history. During her term at Gallaudet, she met and married Alfred Sonnenstrahl. She graduated Gallaudet in 1958 with a BA and had her first child, Samuel, a month later.
Her second child, Beth, followed a little over a year later. She spent several years as a housewife, but in 1962, Elva S. Loe, then chair of the Gallaudet art department, went on sabbatical and asked Sonnenstrahl to fill in for her. This was the start of an almost 35-year teaching career at Gallaudet. Sonnenstrahl joined Gallaudet’s faculty as an assistant in the art department, and became a full instructor in art history in 1965.
At the same time, she began studying for a master’s degree in art history at Catholic University of America, and earned her degree in 1967. While teaching at Gallaudet during the 1960s, she also developed an interest in the theater. She performed with the District of Columbia Club for the Deaf’s Dramatics Guild, spent two seasons of summer study with the National Theatre for the Deaf, and worked at the Frederick H. Hughes Memorial Theater as a script reader, board member, director, and performer. It was at Hughes that she directed the first deaf theatrical production with an all-black cast, Ceremonies in Dark Old Men, in 1973.
Sonnenstrahl was named Gallaudet’s Teacher of the Year in 1978, and had the Tower Clock dedicated to her in the same year. She was also later named to the National Congress of Jewish Deaf Hall of Fame in 1990 and was selected as the District of Columbia Professor of the Year two years later.
She was the first deaf person to receive a certificate in museum studies from New York University in 1985, and earned her Ph.D. from NYU in museum studies with a minor in deaf education in 1987. She worked extensively on museum accessibility issues, and served on advisory boards at the Smithsonian, the Capitol Children’s Museum, and New York’s Museum of Modern Art. She assisted the National Endowment for the Arts on the Museum Training Model Development Project, which helped deaf interns enter the museum field.
Dr. Sonnenstrahl became the chair of Gallaudet’s art department in 1991 and retired from Gallaudet as a professor emerita in 1996. Her book, Deaf Artists in America: Colonial to Contemporary, a definitive survey of deaf contributions to the art world, was published in 2002 and won a Benjamin Franklin Book Award in 2003. Dr. Sonnenstrahl was inducted into the Gallaudet University Hall of Fame in 2014 as Deborah B. Blumenson, her current married name.
Scope and Content
Most of the material in this collection is personal in nature and unrelated to Dr. Sonnenstrahl’s work in the arts and art education. It includes photo albums, scrapbooks, correspondence, and clippings related to her childhood and the early part of her first marriage, as well as report cards, progress reports, and other items from her pre-Gallaudet education. Of particular interest are a feasibility study on the renovation of Gallaudet’s historical buildings and a report on the 1978 renovation of Gallaudet’s Ole Jim.
This collection also includes extensive material on Dr. Sonnenstrahl’s work as a performer and director in the world of deaf theater, primarily at the Frederick Hughes Theater during the 1970s. Most of this material covers plays that she directed, rather than performed in, and so is more concerned with backstage details such as rehearsal plans, casting, and script editing.
Also present is a small amount of material on her work with other deaf organizations, including the Maryland Association for the Deaf and the National Center for Law and the Deaf.
Series 1. Correspondence, 1951-1991
A small collection of Dr. Sonnenstrahl’s personal and professional correspondence. Includes a selection of certificates and letters of appreciation; see series 8 for similar items.
Series 2. Family papers, 1950s-1980s
A collection of papers related to Dr. Sonnenstrahl’s family members, including her former husband, Alfred Sonnenstrahl, their children, Samuel and Beth Sonnenstrahl, and Dr. Sonnenstrahl’s father, Dr. Israel Meranski. Includes newspaper and magazine clippings on the children’s accomplishments, planning documents and correspondence on the Sonnenstrahl/Meranski wedding, a collection of greeting cards sent by Alfred Sonnenstrahl, and a collection of obituaries for Dr. Meranski.
Series 3. Early education records, 1945-1979
These records cover Dr. Sonnenstrahl’s pre-college education at various schools in the Baltimore area, including the Park School, the Baer School, and the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins, where she received her music education. Includes report cards, programs from school events, progress reports, and special education reports filed with the state Department of Education.
Series 4. Gallaudet undergraduate papers, 1955-1958
Papers from Dr. Sonnenstrahl’s time as a Gallaudet undergraduate. Includes report cards and notes on academic honors that were sent to her parents. Also present are some event programs from proms and her sorority (Delta Epsilon), including her invitation to pledge DE, and a copy of the 1956 Tower Clock yearbook with notes from fellow students tucked between the pages.
Series 5. Gallaudet faculty papers, 1976-1987
A small collection of items from Dr. Sonnenstrahl’s time as a member of the Gallaudet faculty. Most is made up of two reports on renovations of the campus’s historical buildings, a program that Dr. Sonnenstrahl was involved in. This includes a feasibility study for improvements to be made to the buildings and a before-and-after report on the 1978 renovation of Ole Jim.
Series 6. Papers on dramatic productions, 1970-1976
The bulk of this series is records from several productions at the Frederick H. Hughes Theater that Dr. Sonnenstrahl was involved in as a director or staff member. These include productions of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Ceremonies in Dark Old Men, 1776, and We and They. Includes programs and Playbills, advertising fliers, clippings and reviews,
rehearsal schedules, scripts, and more.
Series 7 includes several scrapbooks of clippings and photos from these plays.
Also includes a set of theater reviews of productions at the Kennedy Center, which Dr. Sonnenstrahl wrote for deaf newsletters and publications in the DC area.
Series 7. Records of deaf organizations, 1973-1990
Records on Dr. Sonnenstrahl’s involvement in DC-area deaf organizations. In particular, this series covers Dr. Sonnenstrahl’s work at the National Center for Law and the Deaf, where she was director of the Deaf Consumer Education Pilot Project (DCEPP) in the late 1970s.
Also includes some material from the 1979 Maryland Association of the Deaf (MDAD) convention in Ocean City and programs from deaf beauty pageants – some that Dr. Sonnenstrahl served as a judge for, and some that her daughter, Beth, competed in.
Series 8. Scrapbooks, 1930s-1978
A collection of scrapbooks, clipping books, and photograph albums. Includes a scrapbook from Dr. Sonnenstrahl’s early childhood (1942-1945); a scrapbook from a trip to California in 1952; a small scrapbook from Camp Peter Pan in Ronkonkoma, New York, the first summer camp for the deaf in the United States; a family photo album ranging from the 1930s to 1970s; and several scrapbooks, photos, and clippings from Dr. Sonnenstrahl’s involvement in drama at the Hughes Theater and elsewhere.
Note that the 1942-1945 and 1952 scrapbooks are in poor condition: the paper is brittle and crumbling, and the glue or tape that holds items to the pages has, in many cases, dried so that it no longer holds securely. These books must be handled with great care.
Series 9. Diplomas and awards, 1954-1990
A collection of plaques, framed certificates, and statuettes reflecting honors earned by Dr. Sonnenstrahl. Includes her MA and Ph.D. diplomas, her NYU certificate for museum studies, her mortarboard and academic hood, Teacher of the Year and Tower Clock dedication plaques, a plaque for her elevation to the National Congress of Jewish Deaf (NCJD) Hall of Fame, and more.
Also included are a couple of statuettes whose labels have fallen off and been lost but which appear to have been drama-related.
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