- The Necessity of Now
- Who Was Louise B. Miller?
- Miller v. D.C. Board of Education
- Kendall School Division II
- Making Amends
Louise B. Miller fought tirelessly for educational access and quality for her own, and for all, Black deaf children, trailblazing a path to educational justice for all in America. But her story and ensuing legacy have remained hidden for far too long.
Who Was Louise B. Miller?
Louise B. Miller, a Fighter for Equality
Though her story is tied to Black deaf children and Gallaudet University, which was chartered by Abraham Lincoln in 1864 and remains the world’s only liberal arts university for deaf and hard of hearing students, it is about much more than that.
Her advocacy demonstrated the universal power of a mother’s love for her children, the societal ills of marginalization and her fearless quest to overcome it, and the ripple effect that advocacy and courage can have across a community, country, and world.
Miller v. D.C. Board of Education
Setting Precedent for America’s Civil Rights Movement
Negro Children Win Court Test
Educate Juveniles Here, Pine Orders
July 4, 1952
Judge David A. Pine yesterday ordered the superintendent of schools to provide education facilities for deaf Negro children in the District of Columbia.
Since 1905, District authorities have contracted with the Columbia Institution for the Blind and Deaf to provide schooling for both Negro and white deaf children. The white pupils are taught in Washington and the Negroes are sent to a school at Overlea, Md.
In a suit brought by the parents of six deaf Negro children, Pine held the practice to be unconstitutional. He said the “separate but equal” doctrine for a separated school system in Washington has been clearly established.
“But,” Pine declared, “in the instant case the white children are educated within the District of Columbia and the colored children are educated in Maryland.
“A Supreme court decision in 1939 in a Missouri case holds that a State may not provide educational facilities within its boundary for one race and send the other outside the State to receive the same course of instruction.
“It is the duty of the District to provide equal educational facilities within the District for deaf children of both races. How this is to be done is not a matter for me to decide, but the difficulties do not seem too insurmountable.”
No Serious Impact Seen
The decision is not expected to have a serious impact on the school system.
Pine went on to state that the president of Columbia institution has advised the superintendent of schools that provision will be made for the education of colored deaf children in segregated classes in its school.
It was also pointed out that the board of education has agreed to recommend the making of a contract for Columbia to educate the Negro children at the institution beginning in September.
Founded in Washington, D.C., during the American Civil War, Gallaudet University became a racially integrated campus in the 1890’s.
However, due to complaints from white parents, Black deaf students were moved off campus and transferred to the Maryland School for the Colored Blind and Deaf-Mutes during the Jim Crow era in 1905. It would take almost 50 years before they were granted the right to return.
We have the late Louise B. Miller to thank for being a key catalyst in the quest to end educational injustice that Black deaf children faced during that era, and today we honor her for this and the precedent it set for America’s civil rights movement. In the 1950’s, Mrs. Miller—a Washington, D.C. resident and the mother of four children, including three deaf sons—applied for her eldest son Kenneth’s admission to the nearby Kendall School for the Deaf, a private elementary school on Gallaudet’s campus. Her application was denied because Kenneth was Black. Her children, and other Black deaf children living in the District of Columbia, were forced to go to educational facilities outside of D.C. (which was costly for the Millers).
COLUMBIA INSTITUTION FOR THE DEAF
Office of Executive Officer Lincoln 2450
August 7, 1951
Mrs. Louise B. Miller
1204 T Street, N.W.
Dear Mrs. Miller:
Your letter addressed to the Board of Directors of the Columbia Institution for the Deaf has been given to me to answer because the Board does not meet during the summer.
You do not mention in your letter that your child is a Negro child. Of course that makes a difference. There is segregation in the school system in the District of Columbia.
All I can suggest is that you follow the usual procedure. We cannot enroll any child who has not been cleared by the Board of Education, with headquarters at the Franklin Administration Building. The customary procedure is for the parent to take the deaf child there, where he is tested by a doctor and an audiometrist. If he is found to be so deaf that he requires special education, he is referred to us, if he is white, and to the Overlea School in Maryland, if he is a Negro. We only act upon presentation of the child to us by the Board of Education.
We have a contract with the District each year to educate their white deaf children. When and if the District decides to educate Negro deaf children in the District, we will be glad to consider your application, as we do all others referred to us by the public schools of the District of Columbia.
Very truly yours,
Leonard M. Elstad
Undeterred, in 1952 Mrs. Miller led a group of Black parents in a lawsuit against the D.C. Board of Education, on behalf of Kenneth and the other Black deaf children denied admission to Kendall School. More broadly, the fight she led in Miller v. Board of Education would have a profound impact for deaf schools across the country.
Mrs. Miller won the case, in what would become a watershed moment not only in Black deaf history but also the American civil rights movement. Her case, which established that Black students could not be sent outside a state or district to obtain the same education that white students were provided, set the precedent for Brown v. Board of Education just two years later. In that landmark decision in 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation of children in public schools was unconstitutional, though it wouldn’t be enforced in a meaningful way until later legislation.
Kendall School Division II
A New Form of Discrimination
While Mrs. Miller’s persistence had indeed restored the right of Black deaf students to attend school on campus at Gallaudet, what happened next remains a dark chapter in Gallaudet’s history.
Due to Gallaudet’s own doing, the 23 Black deaf students, who comprised the first group of returning students in 1952, were segregated in their own, inferior school—the Kendall School Division II for Negroes, which was an “annex” to the main Kendall School.
Deaf Schooling Policy Changed
April 25, 1952
The District Commissioners yesterday approved the Board of Education decision to school Negro deaf children in the District next year rather than in Overlea, near Baltimore.
They acted by agreeing to enter into a contract with the Columbia Institution for the Deaf where the Negro students, now numbering 17, will be enrolled next year.
Parents of some deaf children, white and Negro, have asked that the children be given special training in the regular school system. Their argument has been that when the children grow up they will have to live in the community and should make the adjustment now.
The Kendall School Division II was in operation for only one year and closed following the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. What became of the majority of the 23 students is largely unknown (we do know that none of the students received diplomas or attended college).
Acknowledging Past Injustices
Gallaudet deeply regrets its role in this dark part of history and the ensuing impact of the decades of injustice experienced by Black deaf children at the Kendall School and Gallaudet University.
We also know that the resulting pain still lingers, and we acknowledge the need to examine our fraught racial legacy and participate in a national reckoning with the discriminatory and destructive legacy of segregation. Though at points throughout our history, Gallaudet has been a site of incredible civil resistance, cultural resolve, and social empowerment, the story of the 23 students covered by the lawsuit that Mrs. Miller led with a group of parents is a prime example of this shameful legacy that Gallaudet played a part in enabling.
Honoring Mrs. Miller’s Legacy and Building a Better Future
Thankfully, throughout our history, members of our student body have raised their voices to fight for justice and call for corrective action just as Mrs. Miller did. It was the leadership of students that prompted Gallaudet, in 2016, to begin examining our fraught racial legacy with the Black deaf community. We started with small steps, such as addressing the poor placement of a plaque that had been previously installed on campus to recognize Mrs. Miller’s efforts. That led us to envision the Louise B. Miller Pathways and Gardens: A Legacy to Black Deaf Children, which we hope will be a place where people will gather to learn and reflect in impactful ways.
This memorial represents one of the ways that Gallaudet is honoring the legacy, courage, and vision of Mrs. Miller, as well as the 23 Black deaf students and their four Black hearing teachers from Kendall School Division II. It’s also a way to explore our history and strive to build a more inclusive path forward. This builds on the ongoing work of our Center for Black Deaf Studies, established in 2020 as an outreach and research center for teaching and learning about the Black deaf experience.
Louise B. Miller Pathways and Gardens
A memorial to honor the legacy, courage, and vision of Mrs. Miller, along with the 23 Black deaf students and their Black teachers from Kendall School Division II.Learn About the Memorial
Center for Black Deaf Studies
An outreach and research center for teaching and learning about the Black Deaf experience, the CBDS provides easy access to a range of useful resources.Visit the CBDS Site
Take action by supporting the development of the Louise B. Miller Pathways and Gardens Memorial and read more about the project and intentions for the site below.Donate Now