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GUEST EDITORIAL: The segregated history of Georgia School for the Deaf

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On Sept. 28, a group of 56 high school and middle school students at the Georgia School for the Deaf sat in rapt attention as they learned about the segregated past of their school. Today’s Georgia School for the Deaf is a modern, fully integrated facility, but it didn’t begin that way. We had recently published a book, “The Segregated Georgia School for the Deaf,” that chronicled the history of black education at the school. Before it was even published, we knew we wanted to share it with the students.

Students, along with staff and faculty who attended, were amazed. Like many people, they didn’t recognize that prior to 1800, white deaf students had little access to quality education, and that even free black children had none. Wealthy families might send their children to European schools, but those without the means simply had no way to obtain formal education for their deaf children.

The situation changed in Georgia in the mid-1800s, and in 1849 a fledgling school for deaf students in Cave Spring officially became the all-white Georgia Institution for the Deaf and Dumb. However, despite the enactment of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which was supposed to guarantee equal protection under the law to all citizens, it wasn’t until 1882 that black deaf children in Georgia had access to any formal education — and that was in a segregated school.

The subsequent determination by the Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson, which enshrined “separate but equal,” only reinforced this travesty. Even after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the Georgia School for the Deaf remained functionally segregated. Only in 1975 did the school become truly and permanently integrated.

The story of how the Georgia School for the Deaf went from the all-white Georgia Institution for the Deaf and Dumb to the integrated facility we see today is fascinating. It is filled with both heroic deeds and heartbreaking inequality. It is a tale of rejection and shameful neglect, where efforts to formally educate Georgia’s most vulnerable children were repeatedly and intentionally delayed or deferred.

In “The Segregated Georgia School for the Deaf,” we chronicle the entire history, using the Georgia School for the Deaf as our lens. The effort to research, write and publish the book spanned nearly 15 years, and it includes contemporary stories, firsthand accounts and interviews, and photographs and illustrations.

Yet, until we walked into the school auditorium, our audience had no inkling of the story we would tell.

For the presentation, we took these students, faculty and staff on a journey through time, navigating them past three major wars, uncovering the duplicity of the Jim Crow era in the South, and finally, bringing them full circle to the current institution they attend.

We were both excited and humbled by this opportunity, and we look forward to sharing the history of the Segregated Georgia School for the Deaf with students and families in other places. It’s a story that very much deserves to be told, over and over again.

Clemmie Whatley is an associate professor of education in the Tift College of Education at Mercer University. Whatley, Ph.D., grew up in the Cave Spring area’s Chubbtown community during desegregation.

Ron Knorr is an assistant professor of education in the Tift College of Education at Mercer University. He holds a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction, and a Master of Arts in teaching.

The Segregated Georgia School for the Deaf is available from Sunbury Press at sunburypressstore.com.