Two years before schools became desegregated nationwide, Louise B. Miller and other local parents fought a court battle on behalf of her son Kenneth Miller and five other Black Deaf students who had been denied admission into the Kendall School for the Deaf, located on the campus of what’s now known as Gallaudet University in Northeast.
Even after the U.S. District Court in D.C. ruled in Miller’s favor, the Kendall School relegated Kenneth Miller, his peers, and more than a dozen other Black Deaf youths to Kendall Division II School for Negroes, a separate school building where Black Deaf students learned from an entirely different curriculum under dismal conditions for two years.
Despite Kendall School and Kendall Division II School for Negroes eventually becoming one, neither Kenneth Miller nor his Black Deaf peers received their high school diplomas as did their white classmates. To right this wrong, Gallaudet University recently honored the members of what has now become known as the Kendall 24. During a ceremony, Gallaudet’s Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center conferred their high school diplomas.
In addition to Kenneth Miller, the following people received honors, some of them posthumously: Mary Arnold; Janice Boyd Ruffin; Irene Brown; Darrell Chatman; Robbie Cheatham; Dorothy Howard Miller; Robert Lee Jones; Richard King Jr.; Rial Loftis; Deborah Moton; William Matthews; Donald Mayfield; Robert Milburn; Willie Moore Jr.; Clifford Ogburn; Diana Pearson Hill; Doris Richardson; Julian Richardson; Charles Robinson; Christine Robinson; Norman Robinson; Barbara Shorter; and Dorothy Watkins Jennings.
As Kenneth Miller’s younger sister Carol Miller recalled, the July 22 ceremony at Gallaudet’s Kellogg Conference Center opened up a flood of emotions in her older brother that he kept bottled up throughout his childhood and adolescence.
“I wanted to be joyful. At the same time, there was an underlying anger [at not] understanding why something like this had to happen like that in the first place and why it took so long to be reconciled,” said Carol Miller, the Miller family historian who spoke to The Informer on behalf of Kenneth Miller.
“I’ve never seen my brother react emotionally so strongly, other than when his mother [Louise B. Miller] died,” she added. “It was distressing to know that he had been holding that in all of these years and that something like this would make an impact on him.”
A Mother’s Fight for Equity
Hundreds of people, including Miller and five other living members of the Kendall 24, along with their family members, and supporters of their deceased classmates attended the historic ceremony.
Others in attendance that day included family members of Mary E. Britt, Rubye S. Frye, Robert Robinson, and Bessie Z. Thornton, four Black teachers from Kendall Division II School for Negroes.
D.C. Council member Zachary Parker (D-Ward 5); Dr. Monique M. Chism, the Smithsonian Institute’s under secretary for education; and Christopher D. Johnson, president of the D.C. Area Black Deaf Advocates also made appearances.
In a proclamation, Gallaudet’s board of trustees declared July 22 as “Kendall 24 Day” and apologized for the university’s role in “perpetuating the historic inequity, systemic marginalization, and the grave injustice committed against the Black Deaf community.”
The board also committed to building a memorial to Louise B. Miller and others who fought on behalf of Black Deaf children. A fundraising campaign for that memorial, named Louise B. Miller Pathways and Garden, will start within the coming months.
“I hope the memorial is a place someone can walk through and leave behind all the things that people are doing and saying [to] have a conversation about what is actually important in this life, like how you treat other people,” Carol Miller said. “Once you finish walking through it, you can get to an understanding. When people go through this memorial, I hope it’s for self-reflection.”
Upon learning that their son Kenneth Miller was Deaf, the Millers began searching for the appropriate school setting. In 1946, Louise B. Miller, a wife and mother of four, started writing letters to the D.C. Board of Education and meeting with assistant superintendents about her ongoing request for a school that Kenneth Miller could attend locally.
Kenneth Miller, then five years old, had Carol Miller as his only younger sibling. Throughout the years, the Miller family grew with the births of Gerald and Justin Miller, both of whom were also Deaf.
Kendall School, which was initially integrated, became segregated at the behest of white parents in the early 20th century. At the time, the District entered into a contract with the Maryland School for the Blind in Overlea, Maryland to educate the District’s Black Deaf children. Black parents could send their children there for free, or elsewhere at their own expense.
The Miller family initially considered enrolling Kenneth Miller in the Maryland School for the Blind. However, as shown in handwritten notes obtained by The Informer, the Miller family experienced disappointment and concern after meeting staff and touring the school grounds. They ended up enrolling Kenneth Miller in the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf in Mt. Airy, Pennsylvania, paying $1,350 — the equivalent of $13,000 today — per year for the three years he attended.
In 1951, Louise B. Miller, other parents and the American Veterans Committee testified before the D.C. Board of Education in demand of Kendall School’s integration. A year later, those parents — Luke Richardson, Minnie Mayfield, Clyde Howard, Berth Ogburn, David and Mattie Hood — joined Miller in filing a class-action lawsuit against the D.C. Board of Education.
The law firms of Cobb, Howard & Hayes and John Fauntleroy represented Miller and the other parents in what would become known as Miller vs. D.C. Board of Education. In the lawsuit, the parents argued that their children — Kenneth Miller, Robert Jones, William Matthews, Donald Mayfield, Irene Brown and Doris Richardson — had the right to attend the same local school as their white peers.
The U.S. District Court ruled in the parents’ favor. However, that didn’t stop Kendall School from maintaining the status quo for another two years.
Miller, Jones, Matthews, Mayfield, Brown, Richardson and the 18 other Black Deaf students who joined them on that campus in 1952 attended what became known as Kendall Division II School for Negros. They gathered in makeshift accommodations to attend classes separate from their white peers before later moving into a separate facility that maintained segregated instruction.
Louise B. Miller continued writing letters to the D.C. Board of Education, providing details about what she described as the significant resource gap between Kendall School and Kendall Division II School for Negroes.
After Brown vs. Board of Education, a landmark school desegregation case won in part by George E. C. Hayes, a partner at Cobb, Howard & Hayes, Black Deaf students and white Deaf students received their education at Kendall School. By the time he completed his studies at Kendall School, Kenneth Miller had been attending classes with Black and white classmates for at least five years.
Upon his graduation in 1960 however, Kenneth Miller wouldn’t have a high school diploma conferred unto him. Three years later, Louise B. Miller passed away.
Gerald Miller and Justin Miller also attended Kendall School. As had been the case with Kenneth Miller, neither Gerald nor Justin Miller received their high school diplomas upon completing the program.
After leaving Kendall School, Gerald Miller took and passed the civil service test for employment in the U.S. Geological Survey as a cartographic technician. As he grew older, so did his appreciation for his mother’s efforts to integrate Kendall School. In 2013, Gerald Miller launched Black Deaf Senior Citizens of America, an organization that aims to build solidarity among Black Deaf seniors and advance causes of significance to this demographic.
Gerald Miller said he saw the pressing need for his organization earlier this summer while attending a convention hosted by Deaf Seniors of America in Hollywood, Florida. He recounted seeing, out of the hundreds who attended, less than two dozen Black Deaf seniors at the convention.
Another point of contention that Gerald Miller pointed out concerned the lack of knowledge among Black Deaf seniors about his mother’s legacy. He cited financial constraints placed on Black seniors that prevent them from participating in activities related to the history of the late Louise B. Miller. He also placed blame on Deaf Seniors of America for failing to prioritize and expand its Black senior constituency.
In advancing his cause for greater representation of Black Deaf seniors in the advocacy space, Gerald Miller said he always keeps his mother at the front of his mind.
“The more I looked into my mom’s history, [the more] I saw her as the equivalent of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,” Gerald Miller said. “Everything she has done has inspired me to help the Black Deaf senior community. I’m honoring her legacy.”
Ongoing Efforts to Expand Opportunities for Black Deaf Students
Over the past three years, Gallaudet has made strides in its diversity, equity and inclusion efforts with the installment of Dr. Elizabeth Moore, a faculty member and three-time alumna, as chief diversity officer.
By the time Gallaudet’s Center for Black Deaf Studies first opened in 2020, 23 members of the Kendall 24 had only been recognized with a well-hidden on-campus plaque bearing their names and those of their teachers.
With the six surviving members of Kendall 24 entering or already in their 80s, Dr. Carolyn McCaskill said she and her colleagues became hard-pressed to collect their photos and oral histories to get a greater sense of the historic Black Deaf experience during the mid-20th century.
Over the last several weeks, the Center for Black Deaf Studies has established contact with the family members of other former Black Deaf Kendall students.
McCaskill, a Gallaudet employee of nearly 40 years and founding director of the Center for Black Deaf Studies, said the graduation ceremony, proclamation and impending memorial came out of discussions that she and her colleagues had about the untold number of Black Deaf students who never received their diplomas.
McCaskill, a three-time Gallaudet alumna in her own right and the second Black Deaf woman to receive a doctorate at the university, said she empathized with the Kendall 24. She recounted her encounters with racial segregation, specifically her enrollment into what was then the Alabama School for the Negro Deaf during her childhood.
For her, such experiences inspired her scholarship about the preservation of Black American Sign Language.
When it comes to the Kendall 24, McCaskill said that their stories reinforce the important role that Gallaudet’s Center for Black Deaf Studies plays in correcting the wrongs committed against Black Deaf people.
“The Kendall 24 experienced discrimination, oppression and racial inequity in a variety of situations,” McCaskill said. “They didn’t get their justice and many of them left school because of the frustration they had with poor education. They were only able to get meager jobs. Not one of them went to college. We wanted those students to know that they had worth.”