Deaf History Month: A time and tools to explore 150 years of the deaf community in Minnesota


Deaf History Month is like no other national celebration in many ways, including the fact that the month starts on March 13 and ends April 15, those dates being so important to Deaf history that the “deaf community has made an exception to the rule.” I love it!

March 15 commemorates the 1988 victory of the ‘Deaf President Now’ movement when students at Gallaudet University in Washington, DC staged a protest demanding a deaf President for the University. I. King Jordan was named President as a result of their demonstration. The month ends on April 15, 1817, the day the American School for the Deaf in Hartford, CT, the first public school for the deaf, opened its doors. Mid-month is the commemoration of the signing of the charter for Gallaudet University by President Lincoln in 1864.

Deaf History Month is unique in another way also. The very existence of the celebration is a tribute to a single librarian, Alice Hagemeyer, who in 2006 led the campaign for the American Library Association and the National Association of the Deaf. Lamenting the lack of services for the deaf and the deaf community’s disinterest in libraries, Hagemeyer pointed out that the ASL sign for public library isn’t city library but hearing library…..

With a special nod to Alice Hagemeyer, this and future posts about Deaf History Month will had an admittedly librarian-biased cast. The month offers a chance to explore some of the people, the stories and the resources of deaf, deafblind and hard of hearing Minnesotans.

In an October 2012 issue of Digital Delights, of Minnesota Reflections, Teika Pakalns offers n illuminating introduction to the deaf-related resources recently added to the Minnesota Digital Library. “Until now,” she writes, “deaf, deafblind and hard of hearing Minnesotans have been all but invisible in the archives of Minnesota’s history.” Digital technology and a partnership between the Minnesota Digital Library and the Commission of Deaf, DeafBlind and Hard of Hearing have changed everything. Using digital technology the two organizations have taken on the task of opening the collections of Charles Thompson Memorial Hall, the Minnesota Association of Deaf Citizens, and the Minnesota Academy for the Deaf Alumni Association Museum.

The history of the deaf community and services in Minnesota is rich with resources and great stories that are only now being told. What is now opened to the public and to scholars is the rich story of the lives and accomplishments of the deaf community.

Of course deaf and hard of hearing people have always been involved in the history of the state. Some wonderful legends, such as that of Oscar E. Garrison, the deaf man who founded Wayzata, have survived. The stories of other lives, contributions and impact are lost altogether.

Records in the Minnesota Digital Library actually begin with the opening of the present-day Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf. Established in 1863 in a Faribault storefront it was soon moved to nearby Mott Hall, the start of today’s campus and the site of countless monumental events in the history of deaf education. As just one example, Edward Miner Gallaudet and Alexander Graham Bell attended at least one national conference in Faribault. There they discussed the advisability of employing deaf teachers to teach deaf students which, Pakalns notes, “became part of the oralism vs. manualism debate” that continues to this day.

In 1885 graduates of the Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf held their first reunion; they voted then to form an association that became the Minnesota Association of the Deaf (now the Minnesota Association of Deaf Citizens). The records of the MADC are also in the digital library. Pakalns cites many of the names to be found in those files, among them the name of Cadwallader Lincoln Washburn of the famed flour milling family A graduate of the Academy for the Deaf Washburn went on to become a prominent artist renowned for his drypoint etchings

Washburn was friends with one Charles Thompson, a wealthy Minnesotan who had a horse farm near Windom and a camp at the “deaf colony’ in Alexandria. Charles Thompson and his wife Margaret Brooks Thompson became generous benefactors of the deaf community.

When Charles Thompson died Margaret dedicated the first deaf clubhouse in America to his memory. The Charles Thompson Memorial Hall, designed by Thompson’s deaf friend and noted architect Olof Hanson, was completed in 1918. At what must have been the groundbreaking ceremony, a raft of dignitaries joined deaf and hard of hearing Minnesotans to celebrate the auspicious occasion. The Minnesota Reflections digital collection includes an article from The Companion magazine, dated November 15, 1916, which describes the event in detail.

Today, Charles Thompson Memorial Hall is familiar to many Twin Citians as the stately building at 1824 Marshall West of Fairview in St. Paul, just across the street from the Merriam Park Library. As of December 30, 2011 The Charles Thompson Memorial Hall is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The designation establishes Thompson Hall’s historical significance “as a building that continues to serve its original mission as a clubhouse and civic center for the deaf community.” The recognition also celebrates “the historical contributions of the community in establishing and maintaining this cherished building.” Members of the deaf, deafblind and hard of hearing community are already at work on plans for the Centenary of the Charles Thompson Hall set for 2016!

Technology also delivers a lengthy interview about the history of Charles Thompson Memorial Hall. The interview with Doug Bahl is part of the Minnesota Deaf Heritage Interview Series which records stories of 14 prominent deaf Minnesotans recorded by the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services Metro Division in 1997 and remastered in 2011. The video collection is made accessible through ASL, open captions, voiceovers and transcripts of audio content with video descriptions included.

Take time during Deaf History Month to explore the riches of Minnesota Reflections and the primary resources that tell the stories of Minnesota’s heritage contained there. Bear in mind that the Minnesota Academy for the Deaf is celebrating its 150th aniversary this year, a good time to reflect on the history with the help of this ever-expanding digital treasure.. You’ll find yourself immersed in a fascinating community about which most of us have much to learn. The good news, the tools are great and the stories are even better!