A historical view of Illinois School for the Deaf

It started years ago on a steamboat ride across the mighty Mississippi River. In 1838, Senator Orville H. Browning of Quincy made that water transport, meeting an educated deaf man from Kentucky on the way. The tale is told that Browning was curious as to how this deaf man received such an education, being that there were only five institutions at that time which gave education to citizens that were deaf. This fellow traveler made such an impression on the senator that he introduced a bill into the Illinois Senate to create what would become Jacksonville’s Illinois School for the Deaf (ISD). This bill was presented on Wednesday, February 13, 1839, as an act to establish the Illinois Asylum for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb. Just 10 days later, the bill was passed. Governor Thomas Carlin signed Browning’s bill on February 23, 1839. It is noted that Abraham Lincoln was one of those who voted in the affirmative as a representative, supporting the bill.

Governer Carlin then selected a Board of Trustees to administer the school and figure out the first steps towards its conception. Board member Dr. Julian M. Sturtevant addressed this task by sending Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet a letter asking 13 questions in order to obtain Gallaudet’s input on starting the school; Gallaudet was the co-founder and principal for the first institution for the education of the deaf in North America, the American School for the Deaf. The original correspondences to Gallaudet were actually found in ISD’s Media Center! Dr. Mickey Jones (now retired from ISD after serving 19 years as the Director of the Evaluation Center) says, “Maybe 12 years ago, I went to the Media Center and looked for things that hadn’t been looked at for 50 years.” It was at that time that Dr. Jones discovered not only Gallaudet’s letters, but also found a large sleeve full of letters dating from 1838 to 1850, which included two pieces of mail soliciting advice from Senator Browning to the Kentucky School for the Deaf Superintendent John Jacobs.

Finally, the board had gathered enough guidance and was ready to build. The citizens of Jacksonville and the local vicinity collected $979.50 by 1842 to purchase seven acres of land for use by the Illinois Asylum for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb. “In April (of 1842) the Board advertised for bids for the construction of a brick building, with stone foundation, 86 feet long, 56 feet wide, 3 stories and an attic high, to contain 32 rooms. The cost was expected to be under $12,000.” (Source: Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, December 1942) Complications arose and the first building for the school, which is now the (later rebuilt) south wing of ISD’s Main Building, was not completed until 1845.

The Board had chosen Thomas Officer as the first superintendent and the doors were opened on January 26, 1846, to four children. Officer was the Superintendent/Teacher/Principal – “He was the whole program,” says Dr. Jones. At the start of the second term, 14 students had joined. The school was growing. In 1855, the school had 107 enrolled students. However, there was a conflict of beliefs. Dr. Jones loosely describes the conflict as the board making politically-based decisions, while Superintendent Officer fought to have teachers who could sign and better the school. The end result was that by the spring of 1856, only 22 students remained and the board had forced out Officer, who had officially resigned on October 16, 1855.

Philip G. Gillett, of Indianapolis, was appointed the second superintendent on April 26, 1856. He was only 24 and initially added to the complex problems of the school, as the “town was scared of this young, beardless kid,” expressed Dr. Jones with some amusement. But, soon the school acquired a fresh, new board and “everything was put back on track.” The first female teacher, Elizabeth Lawrence, was hired in the fall. Seven new buildings were erected during Gillett’s term, the curriculum was expanded and Gillett “brought order to chaos.” The young Gillett ended up leading the school for 37 years, and at the time of his departure enrollment had climbed to nearly 500 students with 42 teachers on staff.

Over the years, the administration changed, the campus changed, the students changed, and even the name changed to Illinois Institution for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb in 1849, and finally to Illinois School for the Deaf in 1903. ISD is rich in so much more history than is written here. The school has certainly evolved over time and the face of the student has changed with the times. The Illinois School for the Deaf has become a home and resource for students who are deaf or hard-of-hearing.

(NOTE: A special thank you to Dr. Mickey Jones. Dr. Mickey Jones is retired from the Illinois School for the Deaf after serving 19 years as the Director of the Evaluation Center, but his fascination for learning about the history of the school has kept him not only connected with the school, but also has made him quite the resource on the topic. Over the years, he has compiled or re-discovered much of the history used in the writing of this article.)

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