Civil Rights Tour: Education - Louise Burrell Miller and Deaf Education

1204 T Street NW

In 1952, Louise Burrell Miller and others sued the DC Board of Education to have deaf African American children educated within the District and won. Schools in DC were segregated by law, including the city’s only school for deaf children—the Kendall School for the Deaf at the Columbia Institution for the Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb and Blind (now Gallaudet University)—and so, until then, deaf and blind African American residents of the District were sent to the Maryland School for the Blind in Baltimore, a two-hour bus ride away. After age seven, the children could board there. But, some of the families and the children found the separation devastating ― and the vocational curriculum inferior.

In 1946, rather than sending her deaf son Kenneth on the long daily bus rides to school, Louise Burrell Miller, tried first to get him into Kendall despite the law, and, when that failed, hired tutors for him. Two years later, she and her husband, Luther Miller, sent Kenneth to the integrated Pennsylvania School for the Deaf, paying the $1,200 annual tuition and boarding fees.

In 1951 the American Veterans Committee, an integrated civil rights group, took up Louise Miller’s cause and helped her and other parents organize a lawsuit. On July 3, 1952, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled in their favor in Miller v. The Board of Education, but not because the court found segregation to be unconstitutional. Rather, it followed the 1938 precedent set by the U.S. Supreme Court in Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada, which said “separate but equal” meant African Americans could not be sent outside a state to obtain the same education that white students could have within the state.

When Kenneth arrived at Kendall, he and the other African American children were placed in separate classes in the basement until 1954 when the Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education required all public schools to desegregate.

All four of Louise Burrell Miller’s children were born deaf or hearing impaired. Family members still reside at the house at 1204 T Street NW. A plaque recognizing Miller’s efforts has been installed at the Kellogg Center at Gallaudet University.