Finding historical value in the Texas School for the Deaf property
December 2, 2015
By Michael Barnes – American-Statesman Staff
Was Texas Revolutionary War hero Deaf Smith really deaf?
Inquiring minds from around the country have been asking that of Steve Baldwin, former president of the Texas Association of the Deaf, for years. That’s because the Austinite is a widely respected interpreter of deaf history.
This 1891 map of Austin shows the ‘Deaf & Dumb Institute,’ as the Texas School for the Deaf was called then. … Read More (see link below for picture)
“He probably had progressive hearing loss,” Baldwin says about Smith. “He was born by breech birth in 1787 and developed a childhood disease. Early on, he had functional speech and hearing. Witnesses during his lifetime — he died in 1837 — testified to his ‘mild’ hearing loss and high-pitched voice. He was probably an above-average lipreader.”
Baldwin, who was prepared to go to battle earlier this year when a Texas legislator suggested selling off some of the Texas School for the Deaf’s land on South Congress Avenue, thinks that Texas founders were sensitized to the needs of deaf and hard-of-hearing citizens, in part because of their close association with Smith, whose features appeared on the $5 Republic of Texas bill.
Stephen F. Austin, James Swisher and Robert Williamson, landowners or traders in this area, all knew Smith, remembered as an astute scout, spy and messenger. William B. Travis said Smith was “‘the Bravest of the Brave’ in the cause of Texas.”
This 1890s view of Austin from the Texas School for the Deaf emphasizes the rural nature of South Austin at the … Read More (see link)
Furthermore, Gov. Elisha Pease, who proposed the Texas school on a hill above East Bouldin Creek in 1856, came from Hartford, Conn., home of the American School for the Deaf, founded in 1817. While he could not have known Smith, others, including a key school trustee, did.
Baldwin thinks that because so much history is sown into the school’s big South Austin plot — the oldest continuously operating school in Texas — it should be permanently off-limits. Its African-American counterpart has all but disappeared in East Austin. Parts of that property were redeveloped as the municipal animal shelter.
“It’s like a Holy Land,” Baldwin says of the hilltop campus. “A sacred land, similar to the Alamo, San Jacinto Battleground or even the Capitol. There shouldn’t be a Dunkin’ Donuts on those historic lands. I’m just joking a little, but you get the message.”
One path to deaf culture
Baldwin, 71, was a war baby born in Boston. He grew up among an extended family in the Charlestown district. He attended Charlestown High School in the shadow of the Bunker Hill Monument. He studied early American history at Gallaudet University, the Washington, D.C., school named for Thomas H. Gallaudet, the renowned early educator of the deaf.
Over the course of almost 40 years, Baldwin coached basketball, wrote and directed plays, and served as teacher and principal at a series of four residential state school and two day programs for the deaf. He earned his master’s degree in rehabilitation and deaf education from California State University, Northridge, then his doctorate in theater history and criticism at the University of Texas (where this reporter first got to know Baldwin in the 1980s).
Now retired, much of Baldwin’s later career was spent at the Texas School for the Deaf, which recently reported enrolling more than 500 students from 18 months to 22 years old, while providing resources for thousands of others on a budget of more than $27 million. Twenty-five years ago, Baldwin married Rosie Serna, a 1967 graduate of the school and former lead dancer for the American Deaf Dance Company and Sharir Dance Company.
Baldwin taught his first unofficial course in deaf history and culture in 1978. Jack Gannon later defined this new area of study in 1981 with his book “Deaf Heritage: A Narrative History of Deaf America.”
“But it took the historic ‘Deaf President Now’ protest at Gallaudet in 1988 to really start the field of deaf studies,” Baldwin says. “The media didn’t treat deaf rights positively until that civil rights protest. In the past 25 years, more than 110 deaf studies books have been published.”
Looking to the land
Baldwin dismisses the persistent legend that Deaf Smith camped on the school’s South Austin property.
“The closest he came to school land was when he and Jim Bowie looked for the mythical silver mines,” he says. “But who knows? Smith probably went to Bastrop, which was part of Austin’s small colony. And Smith surveyed DeWitt’s Colony. He hunted game often, so probably went across the Colorado River to seek buffalo.”
Baldwin spent more than nine months researching the school’s land. He shares his findings with students, in part to interest them in maps, directions and the greater world around them.
This part of South Austin was part of the 4,228-acre Decker League. Captain James Gibson Swisher, who fought in the Siege of Bexar and other battles, purchased 1,266 acres for $4,018.
He and his sons, John Milton Swisher and James Monroe Swisher, farmed the land that would eventually become the Swisher Addition, now split evenly between the central Travis Heights and Bouldin neighborhoods. They also operated the ferry over the Colorado Rivers. (The streets in this part of town are named after their family members.)
The school’s original 57.7 acres next to Swisher’s land were formally purchased by the state in 1858 with a check for $5,500.
The legislators who established the school were contemporaries of Smith, especially Tom Green, secretary for the school’s Board of Trustees, who was involved in buying the land and served on the board from 1856 until he resigned in 1864 to enter the Civil War.
“Swisher had a fairly good relationship with the first school superintendent, Jacob Van Nostrand,” Baldwin says. “Then one day, they fought over the boundary, especially over the South Congress school entrance, which cut across a triangle of land Swisher claimed. The school won in court. Still, Swisher billed the school for using his ferry. He was a very shrewd businessman.”
The school purchased that triangular piece of land north of Nellie Street from the Swishers in the 1880s, thus increasing its total land holdings to the current 67 acres.
How did the school’s population interact with the African-American freedman’s community — sometimes called South Side or Brackenridge — across Elizabeth Street to the south? Within living memory, a segregated elementary school rose on that street just above the creek.
“Little is known from our archives and museum about that relationship,” Baldwin says. “However, the school had African-American workers. My wife recalls a school employee, the son of an emancipated slave, who lived near her on Monroe Street, a few blocks west of South First Street.”
In fact, the families of the school’s non-boarding day students often settled in clusters around the school. One can still spot artifacts of that time in street safety signs that read “Deaf Peds.”
“My wife was part of 20 families who used to walk, bike and ride to the school from 1950s until late 1980s,” Baldwin says. “Deaf people with their hearing parents lived close together. You bet they wished they had kept their houses and land that they purchased for $15,000 and now are worth a million bucks!”
The deaf school was not integrated until 1960s. The Asylum for the Deaf, Dumb and Blind Colored Youth had been built on Bull Creek Road in 1887. It changed names several times and moved to the East Campus on Airport Boulevard in the 1960s.
“To this day, the black alumni community doesn’t relate to our school because desegregation came so late,” says school superintendent Claire Bugen.
The legacy on South Congress
Typically, Baldwin’s research on the school history didn’t stop in Austin. Last spring, he visited Hartford to see if future Texas Gov. Pease had interacted with the deaf population there. Pease worked at the post office in a town of 7,000 people, so it’s likely he knew people who attended or worked at the country’s first school for the deaf.
The Austin school has dealt with potential land encroachments before.
At one point, developers approached the school to lease its property near the creek. Later, South Congress merchants were interested in building a parking garage at the foot of Nellie. The school did allow a cable station to be built on its land along South First.
“Time Warner needed a South Austin hub,” says Bugen, who is impressed by proposed South Shore proposals that would improve the school’s creekside. “And we needed good cable access for our students.”
Baldwin had cranked up his research on the property after the State Senate Finance Committee discussed its future this past February.
“Everyone seems to overlook the historical value of the land,” he says. “It’s amazing how the original property hasn’t changed, except for that small parcel of what’s left of the Swisher Addition on South Congress in the 1880s.”
Corrections: The year of Rosie Serna’s graduation and the time of Baldwin’s visit to Hartford have been corrected.