What did people on the prairie do for their special needs children? It must have been so hard on families, trying to do the right thing for their children who were deaf, sight-impaired, or with other special needs that, at that time, the world was unequipped to deal with. This is an article about two remarkable women who opened schools for the blind and the deaf with little to no funding for these projects. Take a look at what they accomplished!

The Oklahoma School for the Blind was truly a pioneer institution. In 1897 Miss Lura A. Rowland, a graduate of the Arkansas School for the Blind and “a frail wisp of a girl,” solicited funds and undertook to establish a school for the blind children of Indian Territory at Fort Gibson, Oklahoma. She operated the school without any government assistance for ten years, though there are reams of correspondence indicating she implored governors, congressmen, and other public officials to assist her struggling organization. She did present a case sufficient to be permitted the use of the old Barracks Building to house her school. Concurrently, a Territorial School for the Deaf had been established in Guthrie in 1897 under a five-year contract to care for deaf children under boarding school regulations.

Miss Rowland traveled all over Indian Territory, appearing before the various tribal councils, presenting her needs. Since few Native Americans were blind until Europeans brought diseases causing blindness to the tribes, there was not the acceptance that might have been the case otherwise. During the first four years the institution was supported solely by contributions from the people of the Indian Territory and sympathizing states.  In 1900 the Choctaw and Cherokee Nations each made appropriations for the education of blind Choctaw and Cherokee children. Repeated but unsuccessful efforts were made to have Congress aid the school through the Bureau of Indian Affairs. In 1907 the school became a state-supported institution. For “reasons variously stated,” it was moved to Wagoner but soon returned to Fort Gibson. 

(Learning to make shoes–photo by Lewis Hines–ca. 1917)

Miss Rowland, now Mrs. Lowery, had used her own resources, begged for furniture, and convinced other teachers it was their patriotic duty to help her with her project. In addition, schools from various parts of the United States had helped her from time to time. So frugal was her operation that her financial statement upon her retirement indicated that she had operated the school the first ten years on a total of $15,048.44, besides contributions by various persons, including herself. In those ten years she had held eleven school terms from six weeks to nine months long for a total enrollment of fifty pupils.

Oklahoma’s first legislature appropriated $5,000 on May 29, 1908, for the maintenance of the “Lura A. Lowery School for the Blind,” and provided in the same act that the school be under the control of the State Board of Education.  As a state institution the school was supported by legislative appropriations, varying from twenty to thirty thousand dollars yearly. A headline in the Muskogee Times-Democrat March 11, 1911, read: “Perry Miller Saves Blind School.” Miller had authored a bill in the State House of Representatives to move the Oklahoma School for the Blind. Slid Garrett of Fort Gibson had introduced a similar bill in the State Senate. Mr. Miller knew that if the school was not moved to Muskogee, it would be moved to Tulsa. It remained in temporary quarters at Fort Gibson until June, 1913, when the fourth legislature acted to move it to Muskogee, Oklahoma.

Upon moving the school to Muskogee in 1911, first in a couple of temporary locations locally, the state began construction on several beautiful buildings of English architecture with steep roofs. The tornado of 1945 destroyed most of those roofs, demolished the gymnasium, in which three girls were killed, and wounded several others. In the rebuilding, flat roofs replaced the originals.

The school is outstanding in the annals of education, and brave little Lura Lowery deserves a great deal of credit for initiating and carrying on such a program. Helen Keller honored the school with a visit February 17, 1915 and was very complimentary of its administration. Superintendent Mrs. O.W. Stewart was voted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame in 1943 as a result of the outstanding record of the school. When Richard Carter retired as superintendent of the school in June 1979, after being associated with the school since 1939, he had completed the longest tenure of any like position in the nation and was considered an authority in the care and the teaching of the blind.

Following is a list of additional historical highlights:

1897 – 1907 Superintendent Mrs. Lura A . Lowrey

1907 – 1911 Superintendent Mr. G.W. Bruce

1911 – 1925 Superintendent Mr. O.W. Stewart

1913 Oklahoma School for the Blind was moved to its present location in June in accordance with an act of the fourth Legislature. An 80 acre tract of land was donated by Governor C.N. Haskell.

1917 The Oklahoma Commission for the Adult Blind was established. The funds and services of this Commission were quite restricted and the primary thrust of the early program was the provision of limited home teaching services to the blind.

1920 The civilian Vocational Rehabilitation Program developed out of the effort to rehabilitate disabled veterans during and after WWI. On June 29, President Woodrow Wilson signed Public Law 66-236, creating the civilian rehabilitation act. This early program was limited in scope with primary services being counseling, guidance, job training and placement.

1920 Fifty acres of land south of the school was donated to the Oklahoma School for the Blind. This land is currently leased by the city of Muskogee and is known as Civitan Park.

1925 The Oklahoma Legislature passed enabling legislation empowering the State Board for Vocational Education to operate with the Federal Board of Vocational Education in the administration of an Act of Congress related to the promotion of vocational rehabilitation of persons disabled in industry or other, and their return to civil employment. However, this program was not funded by state appropriations until 1927.

Source Documents for this article:

“A History of the Oklahoma School for the Blind, 1897 – 1969”, a document by Cleo Bowman Larason in 1953.

“A School History, 1897 – 1937, of the Oklahoma School for the Blind.”

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A native Oklahoman, I've been influenced by the west all my life. I love to write short stories and novels in the historical western and western romance genres, as well as contemporary romantic suspense! Check my Amazon author page to see my work: http://www.amazon.com/author/cherylpierson
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  1. Hello Cheryl- What a fantastic article. So much history. Thank you for sharing. We all take for granted all the special schools available these days, but I bet it was truly a struggle back then for anyone with a disability to function or even be accepted into society. I’ve read where those who had disabilities were often kept hidden from public eye and considered incompetent to be shown into society. Thank you for such an awesome article about those who did care and want to help those who needed it most. You have a great week and Happy belated Mother’s Day.

    • Hi Tonya! Thanks so much for stopping by today! I’m glad you enjoyed the article. You know, my mom told me the story so many times of my granddad’s brother, Bob, who was going blind. He had a tumor behind one eye when he was about 13 or so. This would have been right around 1900 or so–and my great granddad took Bob to Ft. Worth on the train (from Indian Territory)–and of course, Bob had to have his eye removed. They believed they had gotten it all, but he slowly began to lose sight in his other eye, and their worst suspicions were confirmed–it was cancer, and had spread. Bob told his parents he would rather be dead than live blind. They didn’t force him to get the surgery. I just can’t even imagine being faced with that and having to make such a decision.

      But as you say, I think people didn’t accept those who had impairments into society easily–and I supposed the prospect of living like that looked especially hopeless to a young man who had always been able to see. He died when he was 16. I think this is one of the saddest stories I know.

      Hope you had a wonderful Mother’s Day, Tonya–thanks again for your comment!

      • Cheryl- that is truly a sad story, so sad to think what Bob went through, not only being blind but suffering through cancer too. Thank you for sharing, I agree one of the saddest stories I’ve heard. Yes Mother’s Day was great. I hope yours was as well. You have a great week. Hugs!!!

    • Hi DebraG! There didn’t seem to be much info on this that I could find–I supposed since the school was first started to help the blind Indian children that might explain why. Thanks so much for stopping by!

    • Janine, it really does. You know, I can’t even imagine how hard it must have been financially, emotionally and physically to try to maintain such an undertaking and to be able to call it a success!

  2. Thank you for sharing your great post, Cheryl. It was so interesting and I had no idea.

    • Melanie, I didn’t, either! I found information on another school I’m going to post about in the future, too. I’m just in awe of the “ground-breakers” who had such a vision and the will to make it happen!

  3. What a far sighted and persistent woman Lura A. Rowland-Lowery was. Sadly the powers that be didn’t see the worth of or support her work. It shows how much can be done through sheer willpower and very little money. It is sad how many people were hidden away by families either because they were ashamed of them or afraid of societies reactions and treatment. I can’t imagine how frustrating and heartbreaking it would have been to try to get help for a child. For those with mental issues it was often more difficult than for the deaf and blind. Institutions have been much maligned over the years. There were some truly terrible ones that abused their residents. There were also those who had good programs. What people forget, is that for some, it really is the best and safest option. The move to close them has resulted in thousands being left without the supervision and help they need. We have a decent facility near here which has served the community for years. It is a combination of wards and group homes. Because of the complaints of one family it is being closed. The 300 plus other families have ought hard to keep it open, but without success. Some of the patients will be placed in community group homes, but that will not work for most. The parents are desperate and have few options. They are worried what will become of their children who are not able to care for themselves when the parents are no longer around to care for them.. Those that need medications have no one to make sure they take them and often sink into dangerous circumstances.
    Thanks for showing us how one person who cared could make such a positive difference.

    • Patricia, that is so awful about that family that is causing the facility near you. It seems like there is always “one bad apple” in every case, doesn’t it? You’d think, if nothing else, that they would just pull their loved one out of there and find other accommodations rather than making life miserable for 300 others, along with their families!

      These women who started the school for the deaf and blind so many years ago had so much compassion and determination–and they HAD to have an iron will to be able to make a go of it in those times. I really admire them.

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