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From Pity to Pride

Growing Up Deaf in the Old South

Hannah Joyner

Publication Year: 2004

The antebellum South’s economic dependence on slavery engendered a rigid social order in which a small number of privileged white men dominated African Americans, poor whites, women, and many people with disabilities. From Pity to Pride examines the experiences of a group of wealthy young men raised in the old South who also would have ruled over this closely regimented world had they not been deaf. Instead, the promise of status was gone, replaced by pity, as described by one deaf scion, “I sometimes fancy some people to treat me as they would a child to whom they were kind.” In this unique and fascinating history, Hannah Joyner depicts in striking detail the circumstances of these so-called victims of a terrible “misfortune.” Joyner makes clear that Deaf people in the North also endured prejudice. She also explains how the cultural rhetoric of paternalism and dependency in the South codified a stringent system of oppression and hierarchy that left little room for self-determination for Deaf southerners. From Pity to Pride reveals how some of these elite Deaf people rejected their family’s and society’s belief that being deaf was a permanent liability. Rather, they viewed themselves as competent and complete. As they came to adulthood, they joined together with other Deaf Americans, both southern and northern, to form communities of understanding, self-worth, and independence.

Published by: Gallaudet University Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-xii

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Introduction: As a Prisoner Escaped, a Sick Man Cured

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pp. 1-6

In Virginia in 1877, Edward Pye Chamberlayne was killed when he was hit by a train. During the late nineteenth century many Deaf people across the nation came to their deaths in this way. But Edward, as his brother John Hampden Chamberlayne (Ham) noted, was “always cautious” and “furnished accurately with the time” so he could avoid the tracks...

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Part I. Responses to Deafness

Most hearing southerners believed that children who could not hear should be deeply pitied. Because southerners (and indeed almost all Americans) saw deafness as a desperate and despicable condition, medical experts sought ways to cure deafness. Because physicians felt that the horrors of deafness were worse than any medical treatment, they were...

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1. The Peculiar Misfortune

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pp. 9-20

In the Antebellum American South, the inability to hear was seen by most of society as a great calamity. Southerners did not understand why some people were Deaf, but they sought an explanation in their larger worldview; either "nature and her caprice" or "God in His wisdom" had denied the sense of hearing to individuals. Many Americans felt that Deaf...

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2. Forget That They Are Objects of Pity

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pp. 21-35

Given the cultural climate, the diagnosis of an individual child's deafness was a great disappointment and a shock for many hearing parents during the nineteenth century. According to John Burnet's 1835 study of American deafness, a Deaf child's mother would be horrified when she discovered her child could not hear. "When she makes the agonizing...

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3. Glad Tidings of Release to the Prisoners of Silence

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pp. 36-43

The belief by antebellum medical thinkers that most deafness was the result of a physical obstruction had a cultural analogy. Parents and other hearing members of society were fearful that their children would be closed off from the world- not only physically but socially, religiously, and academically. Most antebellum parents eventually gave up their attempts to...

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4. Guide His Hand

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pp. 44-62

When Samuel and Jane Tillinghast realized that they would not find a medical cure for their three-year-old son Thomas, they began to research a variety of educational options. Uncle J.H. Norwood, on his trip to New York, began his investigations at the New York school for the Deaf. As he wrote Samuel, "I visited the Deaf and Dumb Asylum and had much...

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Part II. The Early Years of Deaf Education

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pp. 63-68

Early in the nineteenth century, formal education for Deaf children began in the United States. As the first public Deaf school, the American Asylum for the Deaf in Connecticut inspired states throughout the nation to open their own schools. The new schools used sign-language- based pedagogy modeled on the New England school’s methods.

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5. An Education of the Lips at the Expense of the Mind

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pp. 69-76

The majority of southern teachers of the Deaf did not rely on spoken English to educate their pupils. Most principals would have seconded the head of the Georgia school, who wrote in 1850 that "very little effort... to teach 'labial reading'" had been made at the state-run school. Many European schools for the Deaf- especially those in Germany and...

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6. Think in Words

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pp. 77-91

As Jefferson Trist approached his sixth birthday, he began to express interest in attending school. One day he accompanied a cousin on his walk to school, and when he arrived, he saw the young pupils practicing writing. He recognized that both reading and writing, as visual modes of communication, would be accessible to him. His mother, Virginia, wrote...

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7. With the Eyes to Hear and the Hands to Speak

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pp. 92-102

When Deaf pupils first entered the classroom, the majority of southern schools for the Deaf immediately began to offer lessons in elementary sign language. Students themselves had already fashioned rudimentary sign language skills by combining home sign with their experiences in the dorm with other pupils. Teachers quickly tried to intervene. Many instructors...

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Part III. Self-Reliance and a Sense of Community

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pp. 103-106

Children who attended state residential schools for the Deaf gave one another an understanding of deafness that was often at odds with what it meant to their hearing families and to the southern community at large. Although nineteenth-century schools were not free from discrimination against Deaf people, they fostered a sense of self-reliance among...

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8. The Dignity and Honor of Human Nature

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pp. 107-119

In 1808 John Jacobus Flournoy was born into an elite southern family. His father, Robert Flournoy, was from Savannah, Georgia, where he owned several cotton plantations and two hundred slaves. When he died in 1825, Robert was worth more than a hundred thousand dollars, and his estate was divided among his seven children. With his share of the inheritance in hand...

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9. The Peculiar Institutions

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pp. 120-130

"It has been a period of prosperity," claimed the Alabama school for the Deaf in its 1861 annual report to the state legislature, notwithstanding the heightened sectionalism in the public mind and predictions of war beginning to percolate throughout the southern states. The school was determined to be better and stronger than ever. The board of...

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10. This Unnatural and Fratricidal Strife

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pp. 131-152

Even though David Tillinghast was a man born to the slaveholding class, because of his deafness his family did not bestow upon him a birthright of mastery. Instead they viewed him as a dependent to be protected. What follows is the story of how David recognized his own competency, struggled against the role of dependency, and fought to gain his family's...

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pp. 153-156

David Tillinghast returned to the south on his own terms, as a proud and independent man commanding the respect of his family. In 1868 David moved back to his home state as a teacher at the North Carolina school for the Deaf. He brought with him a Deaf wife, Caroline Stansbury whom he had met at the New York school. Their journey from New York to

Note on Sources

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pp. 157-160


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pp. 161-206


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pp. 207-210

E-ISBN-13: 9781563683169
E-ISBN-10: 1563683164
Print-ISBN-13: 9781563682704
Print-ISBN-10: 1563682702

Page Count: 224
Illustrations: 10 photographs
Publication Year: 2004

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Deaf -- Southern States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Deaf -- Education -- Southern States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Deaf -- Southern States -- Social conditions.
  • Southern States -- Social conditions -- 19th century.
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