A Limitless Legacy Begins…
It is extraordinary, really, how one life touches so many others and in turn can have such a profound impact on the world. The birth of William Seaborn Johnson in 1845, the only deaf child among 10 siblings, transformed his family’s life, and they in turn created a legacy that, more than 170 years later, still celebrates the individual and collective accomplishments of children and adults who are deaf and/or blind in Alabama.
There was a thirst for education and adventure in young Seaborn’s life that intersected with the compassion and determination of a group of Masons, Methodists, educators and political leaders in mid-19th century Talladega, Alabama, that would create the foundation of the Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind.
Seaborn’s older brother, Joseph Henry Johhnson, trained as a medical doctor, but instead chose to devote his life to educating children who were deaf, like Seaborn. In his 1861 Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind Annual Report Johnson wrote “What is the condition of the uneducated Deaf… The grand object of our institution is to effect… a transformation in the lives of the many uneducated Deaf of our State and we would appeal to every philanthropic heart to aid us in our purpose. We are sure our appeal will not be made in vain.” His appeal and his efforts were not in vain – and the Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind was born.
Early Attempts at Deaf Education in Alabama
Two-term Alabama Governor Henry Watkins Collier, who was elected to the office in 1849, was a proponent of economic diversity and social and education reform. In 1852 he urged the Alabama General Assembly to appropriate $5,000 for the education of indigent deaf children in the state and then employed a deaf man, James A. Watterson, as a teacher for the school to be temporarily located in the summer resort town of Robinson’s Springs (in present day Elmore County). He credited Watterson with pressing for passage of the original bill, but was disappointed with the low number of students who enrolled the first year. “We should not despair,” Collier wrote in 1853. “I advise renewal of the appropriation and permanent location of the school under a Board of Trustees. I also deem it a high moral duty to make provisions for education of the blind. I again recommend an appropriation and the establishment of a school for this purpose.”
The original legislation specified the appropriation be spread over two years and was reenacted in 1853-54 with an additional $15,000 provided to secure a building. A second school opened briefly near Montgomery, and the Robinson Springs School operated until 1856. No record has been found indicating precisely what happened to these schools. The fact that Governor Collier left office at the end of 1853 may have been a factor. But at the 1857-58 session of the General Assembly the governor and the superintendent of education were designated joint commissioners and assigned to select a site for the proposed school and to hire a teacher. (Out of Silence and Darkness, The History of AIDB. 1983)
Setting the Stage in Talladega
In the mid-19th century Talladega was a growing and evolving community, known for hospitality, business and education interests. Following Andrew Jackson’s Battle of Talladega against the Creek Indians and signing of the Treaty of Cusseta, white settlers began pouring into the area and the town of Talladega was officially incorporated in 1835. New business thrived and agriculture and mining prospered. Isbell Bank—Alabama’s oldest continually operating bank (now known as First Bank of Alabama)—opened in 1848.
According to Grace Jemison’s 1959 Historic Tales of Talladega, the area was also known as one of the best education centers in Alabama. The town of just over 1,300 had four boarding schools and two academies in 1850 and William F. Perry, a noted educator who had taught for a while in Talladega, became the first state superintendent of education in 1854.
It was also an era of great debate and controversy about the benefits of non-denominational versus church-supported education institutions. According to the Masonic minute book, the Clinton Masonic Lodge Number 38 in Talladega, with the support of a group of Methodists and Baptists, decided to establish “a female school of high order to educate children of indigent parents who could not afford to educate them otherwise.” A committee of Masons began soliciting funds for construction of a new school in 1848 and on April 12, 1850, they laid the cornerstone for a magnificent four-story building of Greek Revival architecture on South Street in Talladega.
A year later the East Alabama Masonic Female Institute opened and enrollment quickly grew to 107 with a full complement of teachers and staff. Classrooms for primary, intermediate and high school classes were assigned in every corner of the building along with music, piano and chapel. Financial struggles plagued the new school, however, which had been built at a cost of $27,000, and amidst persistent religious debate and economic difficulties, it closed and was acquired in 1854 by the Alabama Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church South. The Methodist Conference assumed the debts and opened a high school for females in the building, but as with the Masons, the financial crisis proved too great and the school closed. In 1858 the stately columned building stood empty and waiting to fulfill its destiny as a school—for the deaf of Alabama.
Dr. Joseph Henry Johnson
Joseph Henry Johnson was 13 years old when his brother, William Seaborn, was born deaf. Despite the difference in age, a close relationship developed between the siblings and as a teenager Joseph began working at the Georgia School for the Deaf, then located in a log cabin on the campus of the Hern School where he was a regular student. (The Messenger, Alabama School for the Deaf).
Joseph Henry studied medicine in Charleston, South Carolina, and in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, but returned to the Georgia School for the Deaf as a teacher in 1856.The following year the Johnson’s ended their association with the school and Joseph, at age 25, began negotiating with Alabama Governor A. B. Moore and the first Superintendent of Education William F. Perry about organizing a school for deaf children in Alabama.
An agreement was reached and signed in February 1858 to open a school for the deaf on April 1 of that year in Auburn, Alabama. Upon inspection, however, the building proved entirely unsatisfactory, and this together with other circumstances, delayed the opening of the school until October 1858 in the old East Alabama Masonic Female Institute building in Talladega. (AIDB Annual Report 1861)
Joseph, his wife Emily, their children and his young brother Seaborn, moved into their new home and were soon joined by other family members who would help teach the 21 deaf students who had enrolled by the end of the first year. Johnson had to rent the building, provide food, household furnishings, instructional materials and supplies for the new school. His contract with Governor Moore also charged him to “instruct all deaf children who were admitted to the school, teaching them the art of speaking by signs, reading, writing and the other ordinary branches of education; to superintend their morals, manners and conduct.” (AIDB Annual Report, 1861) For his efforts the first year he received $200 plus $40 per each pupil enrolled.
When a visiting committee observed the students and operations of the school a year later they were high in their praise of the eminent fitness of Dr. J. H. Johnson. Act Number 253, signed on January 27, 1860, by Governor A. B. Moore creating the state institution for the education of deaf persons, seemed to be fitted precisely for Talladega and Dr. Johnson’s school. It also provided $20,000 in funding for buildings and $5,000 annually for operations. The new Board of “Commissioners” convened its first meeting on February 4, 1860. (Out of Silence and Darkness, 1983)
Joseph Henry Johnson would oversee the development of many new and innovative programs during his tenure as president and often sought out the advice of the day’s best authorities in the field such as Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet.
Bell was a noted educator of the deaf – both his mother and wife were almost deaf – and invented the telephone while trying to find a way to transmit sound by electricity. It is reported that he shared his invention with Dr. Johnson during a visit to Alabama and that the first telephone operated in Alabama was on the School for the Deaf campus.
The Civil War
The Civil War impacted the young school in profound ways and led to its expansion after the War to serve those who were blind.
As the crisp days of autumn emerged in 1860, the Alabama School for the Deaf prepared to welcome students back from summer vacation for its third year. But the political and social climate in America was unsettling, and Alabama soon joined other Southern states in seceding from the Union as Civil War engulfed the country. The school stayed true to its mission and remained open during the War despite financial and leadership challenges. Its founder, Dr. Joseph Henry Johnson, left for a time to serve as a volunteer.
Upon his return, his brother-in-law, Reuben Asbury, who served as the school’s first steward, managing the struggling finances of the new venture, volunteered for service. He was promptly captured by Union troops and spent more than a year imprisoned in a dark cell. Upon release, the darkness and a vitamin deficiency had left him visually impaired. But Asbury grew more concerned about “those who are trapped in perpetual darkness.”
After the War, he approached Dr. Johnson about starting a school for blind persons, and in February, 1867, the Reconstruction-era Alabama Legislature passed an act establishing a school for the blind, but made no financial provisions for the new school. Johnson and Asbury opened the school anyway, using meager funds from their school for the deaf until financial resources were made available from the Legislature in 1870. Though he had limited vision, Asbury traveled the state on horseback to enroll new students in the “Academy” for the Blind, which would focus on vocational training and academics. Asbury’s school continued to grow and in 1888, Dr. Johnson and the AIDB Board of Trustees secured land just east of the school for the deaf campus and established the Alabama School for the Blind campus.
Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind is established by Dr. Joseph Henry Johnson in the old East Alabama Masonic Female Institute building on South Street in Talladega. His brother, Seaborn, is among 21 deaf students served the first year.
Dr. Johnson and Reuben Asbury create the Alabama School for the Blind on the ASD campus after Asbury returns from Civil War imprisonment in a darkened cell.
The Alabama School for the Blind moves to its own campus on South Street.
The Alabama School for the Negro Deaf and Blind is established on McMillan Street in Talladega.
Mattie Gilbert Smith secures sewing machines from Ladies’ Clubs in Alabama and puts 10 blind seamstresses to work on the School for the Blind campus. The project will eventually become the Alabama Industries for the Blind, the state’s largest employer of blind adults.
Mary Vance Snell teaches the first class of deafblind students while programs for multidisabled deaf and blind children are added at the School for the Deaf and School for the Blind.
AIDB and the Alabama Department of Rehabilitation Services develop an innovative new partnership in vocational rehabilitation by creating the E. H. Gentry Technical Facility as a “trade school” for deaf and blind adults.
AIDB takes the first step in developing a statewide network of Regional Centers to provide early intervention and later adult services to deaf and blind individuals of all ages in their home communities across the state.
Sixteen presidents have followed in Johnson’s footsteps—increasing AIDB’s reach to almost 25,000 children, adults, seniors and their families in statewide programs and managing an annual budget in excess of $80 million. And the AIDB Foundation has raised more than $70 million since 1980 for endowment, program and capital improvements.
You can read more about AIDB’s history in these publications:
Alabama Heritage Magazine
By Lynne Hanner
The Ties that Bind, A Collection of Historical Remembrances of AIDB
By Lynne Hanner and Rose Myers
Out of Silence and Darkness, the History of Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind
By Jack Hawkins, Jr. and Robert H. Couch