They walked into Swindells Auditorium at the Kellogg Conference Hotel at Gallaudet University to much fanfare, with cheers and waving hands. Some used wheelchairs or walkers; others walked next to family and friends. No matter how they arrived at their seats – they had arrived. This was a moment 70 years in the making, a moment when the achievements of 24 Black Deaf students who attended the segregated Kendall School Division II for Negroes in the early 1950s were finally recognized.  

On July 22, Gallaudet University conferred high school diplomas to the Kendall 24, as they are now known, and the four Black teachers from the school in front of a crowd of 300 people, and many more via livestream. Five of the six surviving students – Janice Boyd (Ruffin), Kenneth Miller, Clifford Ogburn, Charles Robinson, and Norman Robinson – attended the graduation ceremony with their families. The other students and teachers were represented by family members or friends.  

Man in purple gown and cap holding diploma in one hand while the other arm is in air cheering, looking at the audience.
Kenneth Miller

“This is truly an historic moment, an emotional moment, that is long, long, long overdue,” said Dr. Carolyn McCaskill, ’77, G-’79, & PhD ’05, founding director of Gallaudet’s Center for Black Deaf Studies, to the graduates.  

Dr. McCaskill said she did not know about the Kendall 24 until after decades of being on Gallaudet’s campus, first as a student in the 1970s, and later as a professor in the Deaf Studies program.  

“We have history here,” she said emphatically of the Black Deaf community on Gallaudet’s campus. “We need to be proud of our history. The world needs to know what happened here. The world needs to know our stories.”  

The graduates wore purple, a favorite color of Louise B. Miller, a mother who fought for educational justice for her Black Deaf son and all Black Deaf children. Without Miller and other like-minded parents, there would never have been a Kendall School Division II. The students would not have gotten an education in their hometown of Washington, D.C., but far away in Baltimore or Philadelphia.  

Man with purple gown and cap holding diploma in hands with glasses on and a big smile on face looking at the audience.
Charles Robinson

Before 1952, there was no deaf school for Black Deaf students in the District. That year, Miller and her fellow parents filed and won a civil lawsuit against the District of Columbia Board of Education for the right for Black Deaf children to attend school on Gallaudet’s campus. Given that “separate but equal” was the law of the land at the time, the students could not attend the already-existing Kendall School. A segregated school in an inferior building with fewer resources was constructed and became known as Kendall School Division II. The school operated for two years until 1954 when the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka ruled that school segregation was illegal. After Kendall School Division II shut down, the students began to attend school with their white deaf peers. Unlike their white peers, however, the Black Deaf students never received their high school diplomas.  

“I wish she was still alive and I could give my debt of gratitude to her,” said Dr. McCaskill of Louise B. Miller. “She fought on behalf of her children with undeniable determination.”  

During the event, Gallaudet proclaimed the day as “Kendall 24 Day” and issued a Board of Trustees proclamation that acknowledged and apologized for its role in the injustice that was committed against the 24 students:  

“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.” 

“We recognize the harm in denying equal opportunity and equal access to elementary and secondary education for Black Deaf students in Kendall School,” said Gallaudet University President Roberta J. Cordano. “This acknowledgement and this celebration is part of our ongoing efforts and ongoing commitment to work on issues of equity and to improve belonging and justice for all people in our community. This apology is just one step in the ongoing work that is to come around owning and acknowledging the injustices of so many things that we have done, in particular, experienced by each of the 24 students involved.”  

After the emotional speeches, the graduates and their descendents had the opportunity to walk across the stage and receive their long-awaited diplomas. 

“I applaud Gallaudet University for finally amending the wrong and understanding what it has done. It is about time. You deserve to walk and march, and have your degrees conferred, you deserve this,” McCaskill said to the graduates.  

Miller’s son, Kenneth, was one of the graduates. As he walked across the stage, visibly emotional, he signed, “At last,” and stood proudly with his diploma. He received a standing ovation from the audience.  

Woman in wheelchair wearing purple gown and cap with black sunglasses on holding her diploma with tissues to her face. Man with whit shirt and black pants behind wheelchair holding on to the handles.
Janice Boyd (Ruffin)

Janice Boyd (Ruffin) was pushed by wheelchair across the stage and she cried when she accepted her diploma.  

“Oh my goodness, thank you so much,” she said.  

Charles Robinson danced across the stage to the joyful laughter of the audience.  

“I made it! God blessed me so much to be able to get this diploma,” he said. 

Robert Milburn’s son received the diploma on behalf of his father. Milburn was well-known in the Black Deaf community and he was one of the few people who attended every National Black Deaf Advocates, Inc. conference until he passed away in 2002, according to research from the Center for Black Deaf Studies.  

“I miss my dad so much, thank you,” his son said.   

In addition to the graduates’ family and friends, the audience was filled with community members who wanted to show solidarity with the Kendall 24, including Board of Trustees Trustee Emeritus Dr. Philip Bravin, ’66 & H’14, and Mary Lynn Lally, ’66.  

“Back in the 1960s, we were clueless about what the Black Deaf community had gone through and now there is more awareness,” said Lally.  

“After the Black Lives Matter protests and George Floyd in 2020, I joined an anti-racist book club and was blown away by the books and learned so much. I later went on a trip around the South and visited famous civil rights sites like Montgomery, Alabama, Selma, Alabama, and St. Augustine, Florida,” said Lally of her own journey learning about Black history and the Black experience in America.  

“The event was wonderful and as many people have said, it is about time,” said Bravin.  

Bravin commended Gallaudet for establishing the Center for Black Deaf Studies.  

“When we were students, there was no central place for research and knowledge of the Black Deaf community, and now with the Center for Black Deaf Studies, we have a place for this work,” he said. 

Also in attendance was Melanie Stepto, the great-granddaughter of Blanche H. Wilkins Williams, H-’23. Wilkins Williams was the first Black Deaf alumna of the Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf in 1893. She was denied admission to Gallaudet because the college did not accept Black students at the time. Wilkins Williams went on to become a highly respected and much-loved teacher of Black Deaf students in North Carolina, Texas, and Illinois. Gallaudet awarded her with a posthumous honorary degree during its May 2023 Commencement ceremony, and Stepto made the trip to campus to witness the historic event.  

Stepto grew up knowing that she had a great-grandmother who was Deaf but did not know her story.  

“Students in Minnesota contacted Gallaudet to let them know Blanche’s story and President Cordano and the team here turned that all around,” said Stepto of the honorary degree. “It was validation and it means so much for the Black community here, the strides that it will make for people for the future and hopefully set an example for other universities across the nation.”  

Recognition of the Kendall 24 and Wilkins Williams is part of Gallaudet’s ongoing efforts to reckon with its history and to celebrate the rich culture, stories, and achievements of the Black Deaf community.  

Through the Gallaudet’s Necessity of Now campaign, the University is honoring Louise B. Miller and her fight for educational justice for her Black Deaf son and all Black Deaf children, by creating the Louise B. Miller Pathways and Gardens: A Legacy to Black Deaf Children. The memorial will form a serene, reflective, and sensory-rich environment to honor the enduring impact of Louise B. Miller and the Kendall School Division II. The campaign also supports scholarships and academic research and discourse on Black Deaf history, culture, and contributions through our Center for Black Deaf Studies.  

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