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.
In our family, my grandfather’s half-brother, Bob, had a tumor behind his left eye as a young man and had to have it removed. This would have been approximately 1910 or so, not long after Oklahoma became a state, when Bob was just a young teenager. Mom had mentioned this to me years ago, and said my great grandfather had taken Bob on the train to Dallas to have the operation done to remove the tumor. But when, after a few months, his other eye became infected with another tumor, Bob made the decision to not have that surgery done. He died before he reached his 18th birthday, and my great grandmother always kept his glasses in a little cedar chest on the mantel along with her other keepsakes. What a heart-wrenching decision that had to be for the entire family.
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.”
Credit to the unknown photographer for the image of the school used above.