For decades, the athletic teams of what is now Gallaudet University used a variety of names. Initially, Gallaudet College teams were mostly known as the "Kendalls", after the campus's name of Kendall Green. Kendall Green in turn got its name from Amos Kendall, the philanthropist who founded the University on his Washington, DC estate, and donated the grounds upon his death.
When the Kendall School for the Deaf (the elementary school program) was administratively separated from the College during the early 20th century, the College teams switched to the name "Blues". This apparently derived from the school colors of "buff and blue". Those colors probably came from the colors of the floor tiles in what was then the college's main building, College Hall. The tile colors in turn are traditionally said to represent the colors of an American soldier's uniform from the Revolutionary War.
During the 1930s and into the early 1940s, there was some feeling in the Gallaudet student body that the "Blues" name was not "tough enough," and did not adequately represent the team's fighting spirit.
Eric Malzkuhn (Class of '43) was editor of the sports column in the student newspaper, The Buff and Blue, during his time as a student. In a 1941 column, he proposed changing the team name from the "Blues" to the "Blue Bisons". The proposal was not formally voted on, but according to Malzkuhn many years later, "when nobody complained, it became a fait accompli." In his November 7, 1941 column, he announced the new name's appearance as Gallaudet's basketball team played its first game of the season.
Malzkuhn said later that, as a sportswriter, he had been "frustrated at the limited linguistic capabilities offered by the [old] Gallaudet nickname." In his column, he mentioned two reasons for choosing "Blue Bisons": "...partly because a bison suggests, at the same time, both power and fleetness, and partly because such a name enables a sportswriter to give free rein to his imagination in coining such headlines as 'Bisons Blast Siwash,' 'The Thundering Herd Tramples over Nostalgia,' and 'Buffaloes Bluff State.'" The "Blue" prefix was probably retained to maintain a continuity with the original "Blues" identity.
However, the new name did not immediately stick. Issues of The Buff and Blue starting in late 1941 show some flip-flopping back and forth among the old "Blues" name, "Blue Bisons", and plain "Bisons," before finally settling down to simply "Bisons" after 1958.
Soon after that, a decision to drop the "s" was made by a later Buff and Blue editor. Malzkuhn had "used Bisons rather than Bison because when I thought of Bison, I thought in the singular...a lone, forlorn Bison, standing in a field. Bisons brought forth a thundering herd, destroying all in its path." Nevertheless, through continuous use, the singular form "Bison" has become the standard form for Gallaudet University's sports teams today.
Source: The Buff and Blue, various issues 1941-1958; Correspondence with Eric Malzkuhn, May 2005.
Who's inside the Bison mascot costume?
The Bison costume is worn by any of several different Gallaudet University students. No one person is the "permanent" or "regular" Bison mascot.
Howard University Bison
Many people have noticed that nearby Howard University also uses the "Bison" name for its team, and in fact Howard has had the name for longer than Gallaudet. Malzkuhn has said in recent years that when he proposed "Blue Bisons" back in 1941, "I was not aware that Howard U. had the same nickname."
Howard University is a traditionally Black university. It was founded in 1867 as a federally-supported college for African Americans, in very much the same way that Gallaudet was founded in 1864 as a federally-supported college for the deaf. During the era of racial segregation, Howard and Gallaudet never played games against each other, and so the duplication of team names was never an issue.
After desegregation in the 1950s, Gallaudet and Howard started meeting each other on the athletic fields. It seems that neither school was willing to give up the "Bison" name. Howard rightfully claimed first use of the name, but many Gallaudet students were resistant to having to change the name again so soon. The Gallaudet Student Body Government ran a debate and vote in 1954-1956 on whether or not Gallaudet should change its team name to avoid duplication with Howard University. The decision was to stay with the name, and so to this day, whenever Gallaudet plays against Howard, there are two "Bison" teams on the field/court/track.
Source: "Bison" folder in Gallaudetiana file, Gallaudet University Archives; Correspondence with Eric Malzkuhn, May 2005.
* * * * * * * * * *Prepared by Tom Harrington
Reference and Instruction Librarian