Tuesday, October 29, 2013

School for Colored Deaf and Dumb Children

Excerpted from: museumofdisability.org and niagarafallsundergroundrailroad.org


Just before the Civil War, Dr. Platt H. Skinner, a pioneer educator of the disabled, operated three schools for African-American children who were blind, deaf, or both. An ardent abolitionist, Dr. Skinner was forced to move his school twice. The second school, the subject of this book, was located in Suspension Bridge, New York at a terminus of the Underground Railroad, on which Dr. Skinner may have been a conductor.

Significance: From 1858-61, Dr. P.H. Skinner and his wife Jarusha Skinner kept a school in Niagara City for African American children who were deaf, dumb, or blind. They specifically espoused ideals of equality and abolitionism. Students included several children born in Canada.

Description: No known image or verbal description of this site exists. Hints from the diary of Marcus Adams, local judge, suggest that it may have been located on the east side of Lewiston Avenue, just south of the Colt Block.

On January 4, 1858, Adams noted, “Deaf and Dumb school about to open in Glover Brick house.” The only Glover listed in Childs’ 1869 Director (the first directory for Niagara Falls) was Reuben Glover, who owned a cooper shop on Niagara Avenue in Suspension Bridge (shown on the 1875 Atlas). A note by transcriber Thomas B. Lovell, however, indicated that “Glover’s Hotel is what is now the United States Hotel opposite Silberberg’s block.” The 1869 directory noted that Silberberg had a readymade clothing store on Lewiston Avenue (now Main Street). In 1875, the Atlas showed Silberberg on Lewiston Avenue three doors north of Ontario Street. Across the street, on the northwest corner of Ontario and Lewiston, stood the Union Hotel. It is possible that this building was the original Glover Brick House and that it later became the United States Hotel.

The 1860 map of Niagara Falls, however, located the United States Hotel just south of the Colt Block on Lewiston Avenue. This location would be consistent with other clues in Marcus Adams’ diary. On November 7, 1854, he noted, “Col. Fisk has sold the two corner lots this side Glovers’ to the [sic] Mr. Colts for $3000.00. This is the most important sale that has ever taken place here.” On November 15, Adams added, “Loud complaints made about order of trustees to grade down Lewiston Ave. to a strait grade from R.R. to Glovers Hotel. But it is right in principle.” And on August 14, 1855, he noted, “Swan has bought the place next to Glover’s about which there has there has been so much contention.” Further research in directories, deeds, maps, and assessment records could probably pinpoint this site accurately.

Discussion: The Skinner School for Colored Deaf, Dumb and Blind Children is one of the most remarkable institutions in this whole survey, unique in the U.S. for focusing on African American children—many of them born in Canada—who were deaf, dumb, or blind. Michael Boston, from the State University of New York at Brockport, has done considerable research on Skinner and his school, and we are indebted to his publications for much of the background on this site. The 1860 U.S. census listed nine students living in a “School for Mutes.” Six were noted as “deaf and dumb”:

Samuel Brown, age 18; Isaac Brown, age 16; Jane Sly, age 14; and Christian Hartwell, age 13, all born in Canada, HannahPolk, age 17, born in New Jersey; and Eliza Wilson, age 5, born in New York State. Three were blind: James Smith, age 13, and Nancy Smith, age 10, both born in Canada, and Samuel Stevison, age 17, born in Pennsylvania.

They lived in a household headed by Platt H. Skinner, age 30, born in New York. Although the 1860 census listed him as blind, he was not. His wife Jerusha, age 29, was, however, deaf. Their son Henry, age 4, had been born in the District of Columbia. Mary Smith, age seventeen and a “teacher of the blind,” born in New Jersey, with personal property valued at $500, was herself blind. Donnelly Dunn, age 40, born in Ireland, a printer, also lived in this household, perhaps working on Skinner’s newspaper, The Mute and the Blind, “published for and by colored blind, deaf and mute students at a Niagara Falls school.”Marcus Adams’ diary gave a brief running account of this opening of this school in January 1858, complete with his almost immediate reservations:

Jan. 4, 1858. “Deaf and Dumb school about to open in Glover Brick house.”

Jan. 6. “Donation for Mr. Crittenden [Presbyterian minister] was quite an affair. Large company, but few from the stone [Congregational] church folks, none from the Falls, or the other side. Great abundance of refreshments. All our congregation present, with few exceptions. Mr. Wells made himself quite conspicuous. Mr. Wallace enjoyed it. Dr. Skinner, wife and baby were the main attraction as the wife was a mute. He introduced her with the sign language. Deaf and Dumb school opens soon.”

Jan.10. Sunday. Mr. Skinner, founder of the Deaf and Dumb school, came into the S.S. bringing a little colored girl whom he found in Canada. He made some nteresting remarks, and gave illustrations of sign language. (But fear him.)

Jan. 25. “Found an article in Frank Leslie’s newspaper which goes strongly against Dr. Skinner, as an imposter at Washington, and this Col. Fisk sustains in a letter to his wife. So our Deaf and Dumb sch. will probably blow out.

They lived in a neighborhood that included laborers, a jeweler, bead makers, a school teacher, a gardener, servants, a gatekeeper, a butcher, carpenters, joiners, a carriage maker, a grocer, gentlemen, two physicians and surgeons, blacksmiths, a custom house officer (Robert Trafford), several railroad agents, a milliner, a land speculator (James Vedder (with $15,000 of real estate), post master, and New School Presbyterian clergyman (John F. Severance). Neighbors had been born in various states in the U.S., as well as in Canada, parts of Germany, England, and Ireland.

To understand both why this school existed and why there were such immediate suspicions about Dr. Skinner, we need a little background. Platt Henry Skinner was born was born on March 11, 1824 in Clinton, New York. He moved at some point to Prattsburgh, New York, and attended Oberlin College from 1843-1846. On July 13, 1854, Skinner married Jerusha M. Hills, daughter of Allen and Ruth Benton Hills, from Fabius, New York. Hills was born deaf in 1831, along with three of her five siblings. Jerusha Hill had attended the New York Institute for the Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb, and Reverend E.M. Gallaudet officiated at their marriage. The Skinners had a son Henry, born about 1854, who could hear.

In 1856, Platt and Jerusha Skinner arrived in Washington, D.C., with five deaf children, all African American, all born in Canada. With the help of Amos Kendall, one of Jackson’s former cabinet members, whose deaf wife encouraged him to support deaf education, Skinner started a school for deaf children on the south side of G Street, between 20th and 21st. Beginning in June, the National Era, an antislavery paper in Washington, carried several articles on the Skinner school, including requests for trustees. By November 1856, Skinner was ready to share the burden: “Principal for said Institution is wanted, to fill the place of the present occupant of that situation. The salary is nothing; the duties are, incessant watchfulness, care, toil, and labor, night and day; the praise and glory are slander and contumely. Position given immediately.” E.M. Gallaudet, son of the famous educator for the deaf Thomas Gallaudet, answered Skinner’s plea. His mother, widow of Thomas Gallaudent, served as matron. “The reputation of Mr. Gallaudet is such, and the character of the matron and teachers is so high, that none need for to confide children to their care. They will enter a home, and become a part of the family of the superintendent,” noted the National Era on July 30, 1857. Directors of the school included Hon. Amos Kendall, President; William Stickney, Secretary; G.W. Riggs, Treasurer; William H. Edes, Judson Mitchell, J.C. McGuire, David A. Hall, and Byron Sunderland.9  On January 21, 1858, the National Era contained a note that “the Columbia Institution for the Deaf, Dumb, and Blind, will hold an exhibition in the old Hall of Representatives, this (Thursday) evening. Mr. Gallaudet, the Principal, will deliver an address.” Amos Kendall, president, chaired the meeting, and “the pupils were examined, with a view to show their proficiency in sign language. The blind also read from books printed with raised letters, and the evening passed off pleasantly, leaving an excellent impression upon the minds of the great crowd present.”

In June 1858, Congress appropriated $3000 to educated deaf, dumb, and blind children in D.C., most likely in direct support of the Skinner school. Meanwhile, Kendall and others accused Skinner of neglecting his charges. Skinner went to court at least twelve times to defend himself and get custody of the five children he had brought from New York State. He was being prosecuted, he argued, not for neglect but for being a northerner with abolitionist views. Eventually, his school was burned down, and he, Jerusha, their son Henry, and a teacher fled to Baltimore before settling in Niagara Falls in January 1858.

Skinner’s goal in Niagara Falls was to educate African American deaf children, those that had no other resources. As Michael Boston noted, quoting The First Semi-Annual Report of the School for the Instruction of the Colored, Deaf, Dumb, and Blind, It [the new school] is not intended to take any child whose education is provided for in any other way. The school was at first established for the children of fugitives; but, since its commencement, it has been thought best to open its doors to all such mute and blind colored children as are not provided for otherwise, as far as the means of the school will permit. The command given is, "Go into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature." -- This command seems to reach the lowest of all God's creation. . . . The credentials which are necessary for admission into this school, then, are,
 1st. A dark face.
 2nd. Deaf ears and a mute tongue, or blind eyes.
 3d. That the state or county in which they live has not provided for their education.

Skinner traveled from church to church, all over western New York and eastern Ontario, taking some of his students with them to demonstrate their progress, including the use of Braille and sign language. The Congregational Church of Niagara City (Suspension Bridge) and Presbyterian churches in Niagara Falls and Lockport gave him their endorsement.

But stories about possible abuse followed Skinner from Washington, D.C. and help explain Marcus Adams’ concern. On December 26, 1858, the Syracuse Central City Courier published an article listing letters published by the Niagara Herald, critical of Skinner, from Rev. Byron Sunderland, Rev. P.H. Gurley, and Hon. Amos Kendall, all of Washington, D.C., along with criticisms from Sidney Dean, member of Congress from Connecticut, and Rev. L.M. Pease of the Five Points Mission in New York City. Finally, the elders of the Presbyterian Church in Niagara City cautioned that “in their judgment he is unworthy of the confidence and contributions of Christians and philanthropists.”

As Michael Boston has noted, Skinner used the Niagara Gazette to reply to the charges in the Herald. In eight articles published from November 1858 to January 1859, he argued that his attackers did not know him and acted simply as tools of Amos Kendall, opposing his efforts to educate black children. The charges had all been disproven in court, Skinner reported, and that should settle it.  By 1862, Skinner and his wife and son had moved to Trenton, New Jersey, where they continued to operate their school until Skinner’s death of typhoid pneumonia, age 42, on January 1, 1866. Jerusha Skinner and her son Henry H. Skinner moved to Elmira, where she lived until her death. Henry Skinner, who could hear, later married Margaret
Getz, who was deaf.

How do we evaluate Dr. Platt H. Skinner? Was he a dishonest scoundrel or a whole souled abolitionist, dedicated to improving the lives of the most forgotten Americans? Michael Boston summed up his legacy: In spite of his ability to evoke strong emotions in his hearers, Platt Skinner, with his wife Jerusha, “sincerely endeavored to educate their pupils, contributing toward making them more involved citizens. They were engaged in a self-sacrificing, unpopular task of assisting a much-despised race and an unfortunate and neglected group within that race. They should be commended and remembered for their labors.”

4 comments:

i am sorry i dont than this is for dumb peolpe

and i am not trying to be mean are nothing but thanks for think about them thuo

Many thanks for doing this ! If you have any further information I would like to include it in a book that I am writing. I will credit you. You can contact me at paddieu@yahoo.co.uk
Thanks again !

Many thanks for doing this ! If you have any further information I would like to include it in a book that I am writing. I will credit you. You can contact me at paddieu@yahoo.co.uk
Thanks again !

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