Very little published information exists about African and African-American slaves who were deaf. Deaf people in general are poorly documented in history until the beginning of available general schooling for them, starting little more than 200 years ago. Individual hearing African/African-American slaves likewise are poorly documented in the historical record. When the individual was both deaf and a slave, information on him or her is especially problematic. Such a person occupied the very bottommost rung of American society and so was the most-ignored in the records.
This paper lists all of the known published references relating to African or African-American slaves who were deaf, in the United States before and during the American Civil War, as well as accounts of deaf ex-slaves after the war. There is also one reference to a hearing slave who was the personal property of a deaf white slaveowner.
So far, no books have been published on this topic. The only book even remotely related to it is From Pity to Pride: Growing Up Deaf in the Old South, by Hannah Joyner (Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press, 2004). This is primarily about white deaf persons, "wealthy young men raised in the Old South who also would have ruled over this closely regimented world had they not been deaf. Instead, the promise of status was gone, replaced by pity....", but does include a few paragraphs on abolition, and a few pages about views on slavery held by the Tillinghast slave-owning family with a deaf member and by the white deaf eccentric John J. Flournoy.
One deaf historian is reportedly working on a book about deaf persons, both black and white, in the South before and during the Civil War, but a publication date has not yet been announced.
These deaf slaves have been written about in published literature:
- Bodine was slave to a harsh white master. After emancipation, he stayed with the master but was still badly mistreated, which eventually pushed him to kill his master. He was tried for murder.His story is told in: Jackson, Peter, Deaf Murder Casebook. Winsford, Cheshire, UK: Cox & Jackson, 2000, p.37-40.
- Good was a deaf servant, also a former slave, who was so faithful to his former masters that he suffered fatal burns while trying to save their family heirlooms from a fire. He was buried in the white family's cemetery vault."Faithful Deaf Negro Servant," in Silent Worker, vol. 26 no. 9, June 1914, p.172. This brief article is available online through http://www.aladin.wrlc.org/gsdl/collect/gasw/gasw.shtml.
Harvey Prindle Peet [II]
- A native of Cape Palmas, Africa (in present-day Liberia), he was captured as a young boy and sold into slavery in England. Freed by missionaries, he was named by them after the superintendent of the New York Institution for the Deaf and Dumb, brought to New York, and attended the New York Institution for the Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb for a few years. He was sometimes called "Black Harvey" to distinguish him from his namesake. He claimed to have lost one arm in a railroad collision during the Great Johnstown Flood of 1889, and in 1890 married Elizabeth Cooper. In 1892, he was employed in a New York City store. He also had an older deaf brother, Wia. Braddock, Guilbert C., Notable Deaf Persons. Washington, DC: Gallaudet College Alumni Association, 1975, p.108.Deaf-Mutes Journal, vol. 21 no. 49, December 8, 1892, p.4, column 1.
- Harvey Peet had an older deaf brother, known as Wia (or Wah) or "Little Wia", who was also brought to America by missionaries. There is no indication in the known records that Wia was ever a slave, but it seems likely that he was one in England, since his brother was also captured in Africa at about the same time, sold into slavery in England, and later also brought to America. Wia entered the New York Institution for the Deaf and Dumb in the fall of 1857, but died less than a year later from illness.There is a one-line reference to Wia's death in the American Annals of the Deaf and Dumb, vol. X, no.3, July 1858, p.191: "DEATHS: At the New York Institution for the Deaf and Dumb, June 2nd, of consumption [tuberculosis], WIA, an African deaf-mute, a native of Cape Palmas, arrived from Africa last fall."
- An anecdote about an unidentified South Carolina deaf slave appears in Silent Worker, vol. 32 no. 6, March 1920, page 164.This article, "In the World of the Deaf: A Bit of History" is available online, through http://www.aladin.wrlc.org/gsdl/collect/gasw/gasw.shtml.
Hearing slaves of deaf masters
- There is one reference to a hearing African-American slave, a dwarf named Norman, who was given to a young Southern white deaf man as a personal servant. Norman eventually learned the family's pidgin sign language. Even after emancipation, this servant chose to stay with his former master.This article is not available online. Its citation is: McClure, George M., "Norman", Silent Worker, vol.1 no.4, December 1948, p.3-4.
* * * * * * * * * *Prepared by Tom Harrington
Reference and Instruction Librarian