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The history-making Troop 56 of the Girl Scouts

After the Civil War ended in 1865, Americans turned back to the matters at hand, which included education. While the rights of the African-American population were far from equal to the whites, there was much effort creating opportunities within their race.

Education for those with disabilities was even less likely to exist. Coupled with the race factor, those who were deaf and blind had to wait years for educational opportunities. When West Virginia gained statehood in the middle of the Civil War, the education of the colored deaf and blind was not even considered.

It wasn’t until 1870, through the efforts of Howard Ifill Johnson’s petitioning of the West Virginia legislature, that students in this state began receiving educational services for the deaf and the blind. This did not include the African-American population.

The West Virginia Constitution adopted in 1872 decreed black and white students could not be educated in the same institution.

Although the education of colored deaf and blind was not provided in the state until 1926, the state did make arrangements with the Maryland School for the Blind in Baltimore to educate colored students for $300 per student per year. From the Biennial Report of the Board of Regents for 2 fiscal years ending Sept. 30, 1886, by James C. Covell, Principal, “The 2 colored deaf mutes, Lottie J. Madison, of Pocahontas County, and Albert Boggess of Harrison, wards of this Institution and being educated at its expense, have just entered their 5th session at the Maryland school for the colored blind and deaf mutes, No. 258 Saratoga Street, Baltimore. I am informed that these children have made fair progress in their studies, but that the girl has made more rapid advancement than the boy.”

Since these students were in their 5th year, it would indicate their enrollment was as early as 1881. This is the only record of the dates of this cooperative agreement.

There is no mention of blind students.

The very long trip from central and southern West Virginia must have been quite the adventure during this time for a person who could not speak or hear. This practice continued for the next 45 years until West Virginia finally felt the responsibility to educate their own.

Legislation was passed on Feb. 8, 1919, for the creation of an institution to educate West Virginia’s colored deaf and blind. As always, funding and procurement of property delayed the opening of the school until 1926. Classes began on Sept. 14, 1926.

Land was purchased from property previously owned by the white plantation owner Samuel I. Cabell, 10 miles west of Charleston along the Kanawha River. It is noteworthy that this was 1 of the state’s most interesting love stories.

From the pages of the Charleston Gazette, Feb. 8, 1970, ”A rich plantation owner chose 1 of his slaves for his lifelong mate, had 13 children by her, and finally was killed by angry white neighbors – but not before he took elaborate legal steps to guarantee that his black woman and brown children would inherit all his money and land. They did, and the former slave plantation eventually turned into the academic community of Institute.”

The fact that the school’s property came from a white plantation owner to the colored school for deaf and blind students was an ironic turn of events. Mr. Cabell was certainly ahead of his time.

When the school finally opened in 1926, 16 deaf and 11 blind students were admitted from 6 to 25 years of age. At the end of the year the number had increased to 37 students from 11 counties.

Many students entering the school had no previous education. Classes were taught from beginners to 7th grade. At the beginning of school there was the superintendent, the Rev. J. W. Robinson (who resigned after a year and a half of service), 1 teacher for the blind, and 2 teachers for the deaf.

Also employed were a supervisor hired for each boys and girls dormitory, as well as a matron, a cook, an assistant cook, a general utility man and an attending physician.

From 1926 to 1934, the campus continued to thrive by increasing its property, curriculum, staff and students. Many classes were added, including beauty culture, barbering, shoe repair, dry cleaning, chair caning, broom making, leather craft and rug weaving.

The 1927 school year began with a new superintendent, James L. Hill. Much of the growth until 1934 can be attributed to his leadership. His term came to a tragic end on April 13, 1934, just days after Mr. Hill and 8 of his staff were asked to testify before the West Virginia Board of Control, the supervisory body of the school.

After an audit it was reported to the board, “the financial affairs of that institution are in bad condition.” The following day, Mr. Hill called a staff meeting with students present. He gave a brief talk concerning the investigation, quoted some Shakespearean verse from Othello, pulled a pistol from his trousers, shot, and killed 2 staff members and wounded 2 more. He then retired to his office and shot himself behind a locked door.

Romney’s own John Baker White, a practicing attorney in Charleston, was on the Board of Control and was an active participant in the investigation.

After an interim superintendent and 1 serving 2 school years, Mr. Edward A. Boling was hired and remained with the institution until it closed in 1955. With his consistent leadership, the school continued to grow, and enrollment remained close to 50 or more students until closing.

Highlights of this period were major building projects, including a new gymnasium, an addition of more vocational classes and Boy and Girl Scout troops.

After some racial tension, the Kanawha County Council of Girl Scouts of America approved the organization of Troop 56. When the Silver Jubilee of Girl Scouting was celebrated in 1946 in Charleston, Troop 56 was not invited to the ceremony, which was attended by the First Lady of Girl Scouting, Lady Baden-Powell from England.

Breaking with tradition, Lady Baden-Powell make a special trip to the school to meet with Troop 56 and gave them special recognition.

On June 9, 1954, just after the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling, the State Board of Education tasked Mr. Bolling and Hugo F. Schunhoff, superintendent of the white deaf and blind school in Romney, to develop a plan for integration. In September of 1955, some but not all of the students, came to Romney to continue their schooling.

This school year began with the dedication of Seaton Hall, the dormitory for senior deaf boys and girls. During the dedication, Elizabeth V. Hallahan, member of the State Board of Education, stated, “... some of you have seen in your newspapers the recognition which the state of West Virginia has recently received for the fine way it started the integration process in its schools. I think that this school here will be an even more wonderful example” (From The Tablet, October 1955).

Graduation, class pictures and athletic teams show an integration of Black students during the 1956-57 school year and forward.

In September of 2000, a reunion was held for students of the West Virginia Schools for the Colored Deaf and Blind at the Rehabilitation Center in Institute. This was the 1st gathering of students since the closing in 1955.

From the pages of “In Spite of Obstacles, the History of the West Virginia Schools for the Colored Deaf and Blind, 1926-1955:” “Their obvious pleasure with the visit and their general appearance of well-being and happiness offered testimony to the affection that they had for the Schools and to the effectiveness of the life-shaping experiences which were begun for them there.”

Behind this story

As a young child, I can remember Miss Emily Raspberry, 1 of the teachers who transferred to Romney from the school in Institute. She was blind and had a boxer dog guide, of which we were all afraid.

My neighbors, Jim and Hannah Smith, employed by the school, often had parties in their backyard and invited the staff. I remember so many of the staff from the school. This was my 1st experience around people who were deaf and blind.

Little did I know, it shaped me into someone who would be a teacher at the West Virginia Schools for the Deaf and the Blind.

 — Dan Oates

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