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July 13, 2015

Helen Keller in Halifax

Helen Keller, Anne Sullivan and Alexander Graham Bell in Baddeck

For brains, courage, achievement and impact, few surpass Helen Keller. Not many know that she spent the summer of 1901 here, nor that she was absolutely enchanted by the place. There's a lot to the story, including a visit to Baddeck:
My favourite amusement is sailing. In the summer of 1901 I visited Nova Scotia, and had opportunities such as I had not enjoyed before to make the acquaintance of the ocean. After spending a few days in Evangeline's country, about which Longfellow's beautiful poem has woven a spell of enchantment, Miss Sullivan and I went to Halifax, where we remained the greater part of the summer. The harbour was our joy, our paradise. What glorious sails we had to Bedford Basin, to McNabb's Island, to York Redoubt, and to the Northwest Arm! And at night what soothing, wondrous hours we spent in the shadow of the great, silent men-of-war. Oh, it was all so interesting, so beautiful! The memory of it is a joy forever. One day we had a thrilling experience. There was a regatta in the Northwest Arm, in which the boats from the different warships were engaged. We went in a sail- boat along with many others to watch the races. Hundreds of little sail-boats swung to and fro close by, and the sea was calm.

When the races were over, and we turned our faces homeward, one of the party noticed a black cloud drifting in from the sea, which grew and spread and thickened until it covered the whole sky. The wind rose, and the waves chopped angrily at unseen barriers. Our little boat confronted the gale fearlessly; with sails spread and ropes taut, she seemed to sit upon the wind. Now she swirled in the billows, now she sprang upward on a gigantic wave, only to be driven down with angry howl and hiss. Down came the mainsail. Tacking and jibbing, we wrestled with opposing winds that drove us from side to side with impetuous fury. Our hearts beat fast, and our hands trembled with excitement, not fear; for we had the hearts of Vikings, and we knew that our skipper was master of the situation. He had steered through many a storm with firm hand and sea-wise eye. As they passed us, the large craft and the gunboats in the harbour saluted and the seamen shouted applause for the master of the only little sail-boat that ventured out into the storm. At last, cold, hungry and weary, we reached our pier.
The Story of My Life by Helen Keller Chapter XXII excerpt

In the next chapter HK says a bit about her friends Ralph Waldo Emerson, Phillips Brooks, Oliver Wendell Holmes, John Greenleaf Whittier, Edward Everett Hale, Alexander Graham Bell and a bunch of other people you've never heard of, like Mark Twain.........

I have already written of my first meeting with Dr. Alexander Graham Bell. Since then I have spent many happy days with him at Washington and at his beautiful home in the heart of Cape Breton Island, near Baddeck, the village made famous by Charles Dudley Warner's book. Here in Dr. Bell's laboratory, or in the fields on the shore of the great Bras d'Or, I have spent many delightful hours listening to what he had to tell me about his experiments, and helping him fly kites by means of which he expects to discover the laws that shall govern the future air-ship. Dr. Bell is proficient in many fields of science, and has the art of making every subject he touches interesting, even the most abstruse theories. He makes you feel that if you only had a little more time, you, too, might be an inventor. He has a humorous and poetic side, too. His dominating passion is his love for children. He is never quite so happy as when he has a little deaf child in his arms. His labours in behalf of the deaf will live on and bless generations of children yet to come; and we love him alike for what he himself has achieved and for what he has evoked from others.
The Story of My Life by Helen Keller Chapter XXIII excerpt 

Naturally, I was curious about who HK was visiting in Halifax, so I wrote to the American Foundation for the Blind, which seems to have her correspondence. The archive was lost on 9/11, so I am unsure of how the AFB was able to locate four letters written by HK from Halifax which they sent to me.  I have them on paper somewhere, but can't put my hands on them.

It turns out she and her entourage (Anne Sullivan and Mrs. Ketcham - a name I cannot find elsewhere) were guests of Mr. Fearon at the Institution for the Deaf and Dumb. The three of them had been to visit Grand Pre, and made an unexpected visit to Halifax and Mr. Fearon, who HK had met at a convention. Mrs. Ketcham became ill and they stayed at least three weeks.

I was interested to learn where the Institution was located, and a Google search led me to Halifax resident Maida Barton Follini, Radcliffe ’52, who can pick up the story:

I came up to Amherst in 1980 to take a position as Head of the Fearon Unit (Dept. for Deaf-Blind Children) at APRCHH in Amherst, after previously having taught deaf-blind children at Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Mass. (where Helen Keller had attended school briefly before going on to a private girls' school in New York, and thence to Radcliffe). 
The Halifax Institution for the Deaf and Dumb (as it was known in old unenlightened days) was located on Gottingen Street in Halifax, and opened in 1857. Its founders were two deaf Scotsmen, living in Halifax: William Grey was a graduate of the Braidwood Academy in Edinburgh, a school for the deaf. He became a tailor in Halifax, but found that there were over 300 deaf persons in Nova Scotia, without benefit of special education. He joined with a deaf friend, George Tait, and opened a school to teach them "in a mean lodging in a poor street”.

Their efforts attracted the attention of Rev. James Cochran, who was a friend of Laurent Clerc, a leading deaf teacher at the Hartford School for the Deaf founded 1817, and Cochran raised money from the NS Gov't and community to establish the Halifax Institution for the Deaf and Dumb which opened in 1857. J. Scott Hutton from the Edinburgh school for the deaf was brought over as principal and the originators, Grey and Tait were retained as teachers. One statement says "it moved into permanent quarters at Brunswick Villa” in 1859. Another statement says the school was located on Gottingen Street. I am not sure whether Brunswick Villa and Gottingen St. are the same place. 

I have seen pictures of the old school for the deaf - a large many-storied Victorian building which was sold and pulled down when the School became the Interprovincial School for the Deaf, in Amherst, in 1961. This in turn became the Atlantic Provinces Resource Centre for the Hearing Handicapped. This school closed in 1994 and the program was moved to Halifax to the location of the Sir Simon Fraser School for the Blind, and the residential part of the program was reduced, while the "in the community" part was expanded (itinerant teachers going to public schools.) 
When Helen Keller visited Mr. James Fearon, 2nd principal of the school, must have been in charge. His niece, Miss Louise Fearon taught the deaf-blind children and later when a special unit was set up in Amherst at APRCHH it was named the Fearon Unit in honour of her work.

The first deaf-blind child taught at the Halifax school was in 1906, when six year old Mary Jane Veinot who was taught to speak, fingerspell, and read and write Braille by teacher Miss Winifred Conrod. Between 1906 and 1961 when the Halifax school closed, there would typically be 2 or 3 deaf-blind children each year at the School for the Deaf. Miss Fearon taught from one to three deaf-blind children each year for 18 years until her retirement in 1961.

The dates above show that it was probably Helen Keller's visit in 1901 to Mr. Fearon that stimulated him to accept the first deaf- blind child in 1906. Helen no doubt showed what was possible. 

Similarly, a half-century earlier, Samuel Gridley Howe, principal of Perkins School for the Blind, had shown that it was possible to educate a deaf-blind child, Laura Bridgman - and through Charles Dickens' visit to the School and his writing about Laura Bridgman, the Keller family learned about the possibility of education for their daughter Helen, and wrote to Dr. Howe who sent them Annie Sullivan to teach Helen.

I hadn't realized the AFB Archive had been lost in 9/11. However, the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Mass., has a wonderful Research Library on the History of Blindness (and deaf-blindness) and I expect has material on Helen Keller of interest. 
I retired from APSEA (current name of the organization - Atlantic Provinces Special Education Authority --) in 1994, consulted with them as a free agent another 2 years, then retired completely when they hired another psychologist. Obviously the internet information is out of date. No surprise! But it led you to me!!
As you read HK’s letters, it is a surprise to notice how often she uses visual terms. You begin to understand that when she talks about a splendid view of the sea, she is using shorthand to describe her own appreciation of things we experience only visually.

HK was a remarkable person in so many ways. Here is a woman who found her way to a great university and helped break down so many personal and social barriers. Exceptional people help us to see what we cannot always see ourselves, and it is important to give them every opportunity. In its own way, the work of this society has been part of the larger effort to seek out people of unusual accomplishments. 

Not to prolong this post too much, but skip ahead to 2015.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art has an exhibit:

This month marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The Met joins many organizations across the city and the nation to celebrate this groundbreaking legislation and honor the achievement of the disability rights movement. The Met's Access and Community Programs educators collaborate with departments Museum-wide to create an accessible and inclusive environment for all visitors. 
The Met has a long history of creating programs for visitors with disabilities. In Helen Keller's 1933 Atlantic Monthly article "Three Days to See," she speaks extensively about touching artworks in the Met's collection to "probe into the soul of man through his art." 
Today, almost seven thousand people of all ages with disabilities participate in about four hundred programs each year, including people who are blind or partially sighted, those with physical disabilities and mobility impairments, and people with dementia and their care partners. 
In addition to the ongoing Access programs and inclusive, multisensory offerings for everyone, more than twenty special programs throughout July will highlight the Met's position as a dynamic site for people with disabilities to connect with art.
Be sure to read Three Days to See.  In the great scheme of things, your gift of sight pales in comparison with Keller's gift of blindness.

Gus Reed


Anonymous said...

Some more history on the school, Helen Keller, etc:


Anonymous said...

PS: Everyone knows the "inspirational" side of Helen Keller, but did you know she was also a radical political figure? She had a thick FBI file that is now declassified (and available online). She was a socialist, a feminist, and a peace activist. Popular history has erased Helen Keller's "subversive" beliefs, and turned her into a trope.


Gus Reed said...

I know, I know. Dontcha just hate peace?