Considered to be “the most accomplished deaf lady of her race in America,” this week’s #DeafHistorySeries spotlights teacher & activists Blanche Wilkins Williams (1876-1936).
Born in La Crosse, Wisconsin on 1 December 1876 to Charles Wilkins & Estelle Wilkins and had a younger sister, Ruth. Blanche became deaf at an early age. At 8 years old, she was enrolled in the Minnesota School for the Deaf in Faribault, Minnesota.
Established in 1858 by George E. Skinner and the first Minnesota State legislature, the MSD’s aim was to enable deaf children to “receive a good education, making them self-supporting, law-abiding citizens, and an asset to the state.”
The academic department of the school—known as the “Intellectual Dept.”—promoted the combined system for educating deaf children: a mixture of signs and English. Since 1884, deaf teachers were added to the staff, some of whom were MSD graduates. Hearing teachers remained the majority; they taught speech & lipreading.
Blanche Wilkins enrolled in MSD in 1883 and received a common course of study: object lessons, alphabet, penmanship, articulation & lip-reading, reading & writing English. She received oral training but was commended for being an excellent signer & student.
Wilkins remained at the school for ten years. In 1893, she became the first Black Deaf woman to graduate from the school.
Graduates from MSD (such as Peter Peterson, seated next to Wilkins) wanting further education went to Gallaudet College. Indeed, in 1904 Minnesota had more students at Gallaudet than any other state.
At the time, Gallaudet did not accept any Black students. Wilkins wrote to the school president E.M. Gallaudet, several times inquiring requirements for admission.
“What step will I have to take to secure admission?” She asked.
Her requests were rejected.
Unable to secure admission to the top deaf college, Wilkins decided to become a teacher.
In 1895, she became the first Black Deaf woman teacher at the North Carolina School for Colored Deaf and Blind at Raleigh, where she taught in the literary department.
She remained in her position for three years, primarily teaching Black deaf children until schools across the country began replacing deaf teachers with hearing ones. Though earlier educators asserted that deaf teachers were essential, at the dawn of the 20th century, oralism (speech training) became dominant pedagogy. Jobs for deaf-mute teachers became rare.
Wilkins briefly taught at the Texas School for Colored Deaf and Blind from 1898-9. She was the sole delegate from Texas who attended the 6th annual National Association for the Deaf conference, held in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1899.
Wilkins’ attendance and involvement with the NAD is remarkable because women weren’t allowed to vote in the association *and* Black people weren’t allowed to become members until 1965.
As scholars have asserted, Wilkins’ involvement with the NAD positions her as a trailblazer: a Black Deaf woman involved with a predominantly white organization.
On 28 August 1899, Blanche Wilkins married Charles Williams, the (hearing) principal of the North Carolina School for Colored Deaf. She returned to Raleigh, teaching sewing and dressmaking to Deaf girls and knitting and crocheting to Blind girls.
The couple had two children: Grace Elvie (1901-1952) and John Ray Henry (1904-1919).
Charles died in 1907. Needing to support her young children, in 1910 Wilkins applied to teach at the Maryland School for the Deaf, desiring to relocate to Baltimore to be close to family.
Though she came highly recommended, Wilkins was rejected because the school did “not believe in the social equality of colored and white people,” despite her qualifications.
After Grace and John finished grammar school, Wilkins moved to Chicago so the children could benefit from high school education in a northern state. John tragically died in 1919. Wilkins continued teaching Black deaf children and worked in factories to support her family.
On 16 May 1920, Blanche Wilkins married for the second time. Thomas Flowers was a Black Deaf teacher at the North Carolina school who was let go from his position since he couldn’t teach deaf pupils speech. Opportunities for deaf teachers were increasingly becoming difficult as the spread of oralism demanded hearing, not deaf, teachers.
Wilkins and Flowers focused their energies on missionary work and Deaf leadership. Wilkins in particular, was a staunch advocate for providing educational, social, industrial, and religious guidance to Black deaf people, writing articles in deaf periodicals arguing that Black Deaf people should have the right to equal opportunities and education.
Wilkins remained an advocate for Black deaf people until the end of her life, even attending the 18th Convention of the Minnesota Association of the Deaf in 1925.
Five years later, Wilkins and Flowers divorced. Wilkins obtained a job as a teacher at a deaf school in Chicago.
Blanche Wilkins died on 24 March 1936 and was buried in Lincoln Cemetery in Chicago.
82 years later, she was honored when the Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf constructed a new dorm named “Wilkins Hall.”
Her great-granddaughter Jan Stepto-Millett gave a speech: “We really did know her as we were shaped through a common set of influences transmitted through the generations.”
Burch & Joyner UNSPEAKABLE (2015)
W. Lauritsen, HISTORY OF MINNESOTA SCHOOL FOR THE DEAF (1963)
Special thanks to Kim Barron at Minnesota State Academies. Facebook page with photos of the Wilkins Hall opening.