For 125 years, the North Carolina School for the Deaf has drawn generations of students from all over the state, evolving with the times. Now, as NCSD prepares to enter a new phase, it’s clear what the historic campus has always been for its community: a second home.
As kids, we had the run of the campus. During football games, my sister and I rolled down the grassy hill by the concrete bleachers, away from the stadium lights where cheerleaders crossed their arms and shaped their hands into claws — the sign for “bear,” the mascot of the North Carolina School for the Deaf in Morganton. The Bears were racking up basketball trophies in the 1980s, too, and at those games, where we clustered under the bleachers, sound felt spectral and expressive, mostly wordless: the cheers and shouts, the audible exertion of the players, the shaking of pom-poms, the squeak of sneakers, the heavy dribble of the ball echoing throughout the gym before its slow sink into the net.
On certain afternoons, when our father was starting his evening as a high school dormitory counselor and our mother was finishing her day as a high school English teacher, we would leap across the painted blue paw prints that covered the walkways till we reached her classroom, drawing on her chalkboard and pulling paperbacks off the shelves. Grainy family films show our birthday parties: tiny costumed kids dancing around the Boy Scout cabin by the school’s entrance. We flew kites in the open fields, and as teenagers, we practiced three-point turns in the parking lots on weekends. Sometimes, in winter, we were allowed to swim in the indoor pool. This month, the school celebrates its 125th anniversary, but even back then, the place felt ancient to us — this campus of Victorian and colonial brick buildings standing grandly at the top of steep green hills; the iconic clock tower lit up at night; the South Mountains on the horizon.
My sister and I are the daughters of a father who is profoundly deaf since birth and a mother who is hearing. It’s fair to say that without NCSD, neither of us would likely exist — our parents met at work. Before and after them, the history of the school intertwines with that of our family, especially my father’s side, on which deafness stretches back several generations. And yet both my sister and I are hearing, so NCSD does not belong to us in the way that it belongs to its current and past students, some of whom came from homes where there was no signing until they were immersed, for the first time, in a deaf community. Many spent their entire school lives here. Most found in NCSD a second home.
In 1965, NCSD’s cheerleaders outnumbered the football players — a testament to the school’s spirit. Today, the Bears’ mascot has a permanent (and far less precarious) perch on campus. photograph by Burke County Public Library
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When I returned for a visit earlier this year, several of the buildings on campus stood husk-like in their longtime places, emptied and ready for final demolition, to make way for the arrival of the western annex of the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics in 2021. The two schools will share the campus, and most of NCSD’s buildings, including several historical landmarks, will remain in operation. Days after my visit, on May Day, a beloved holiday celebrated at the school for more than a century, the old infirmary was leveled at last. As parts of NCSD disappear, the presence of what is left — and what once was — becomes larger.
Since the school opened in Morganton on October 2, 1894, students have come to NCSD from all over the state. But even for those who lived close to its western location, the distance could feel great. Deafness had run for years in my father’s family in Wilkes County, and my grandfather Coma (yes, his given name) and three of his eight siblings were deaf, like many in our family before them. My great-grandfather Cling was deaf, too, but he was already 18 when the school opened, so my grandfather’s generation was the first in our family to go. Every fall, Cling would hitch a mule to a wagon and begin the two-day trip from Wilkesboro, stopping near the Johns River to spend the night. If the water was too high, they had to wait until it subsided. Today, the drive takes almost exactly an hour by car.
As parts of NCSD disappear, the presence of what is left — and what once was — becomes larger
Except for summers, students went home for just a couple of days at Christmastime and otherwise became immersed in the life of the school. Within the first few years, NCSD established a deaf newspaper, eventually called The Deaf Carolinian, and, later a print shop, providing vocational training for many students. Football had been briefly banned in the early 1900s — officials said it was “dangerous and cultivates the rough side of character” — and then restored.
Once, in the early ’30s, when NCSD played Wilkesboro in football, my grandfather Coma, then in his teens, joined the team for the game, so he could visit his family. There is a bit of family lore, too, centered on the luggage that Coma brought to school: two suitcases, one with his clothes, and one he never opened but delivered to the superintendent’s house. This would have been near the end of Prohibition in the state, my father believes. Small family farms in those days had to be creative in finding sources of income. But that’s another story.
May Day festivities are a tradition at NCSD. In the school’s early days, students also worked on the campus farm. photograph by NCSD Historical Museum
Farm and school life had begun to merge, anyway. Around that time, NCSD built a gambrel-roofed brick barn — an operations center that eventually included vast potato fields, 50 dairy and 25 beef cattle, 60 hogs, and 600 chickens, all of which would become a source of income for the school. Student workers arrived at the barn as early as 4:30 a.m., but Coma was never one of them. He was called back to help out on his family’s farm in 10th grade, only returning to the school when it was time for my uncle Harold and, later, my father, Archie, to attend. The truck he drove made better time than the mule.
For Harold and Archie, language existed in multiple dimensions between school and home. On the farm, there were so many deaf people in the family that, over the generations, they had developed a language of home signs, separate from American Sign Language. It’s the language they spoke with their hearing mother — my grandmother — and with aunts and uncles, a fully fledged lexicon that my father and uncle refer to as “JSL” — Johnson Sign Language. Only they and a few other relatives still speak it, with signs that to me appear distinct from ASL: quieter and mysterious.
Until the 1960s, prevailing trends in deaf education discouraged sign language in favor of oral speech, regardless of whether the student still retained or ever had any degree of hearing. For people like my father, it is counterintuitive to produce shapes of words they have never heard, or to lip-read, as the hearing world often expects deaf people to do. My father remembers running into one of his teachers years after he’d graduated, and his surprise when she began signing to him with complete clarity. Well, she told him, if I had signed to you in the classroom back then, I would have lost my job. But as the civil rights movement took hold, strides were made in deaf rights, too, that extended to the classroom. Today, the school is moving toward bilingualism and putting equal emphasis on American Sign Language and English literacy.
The author’s father, Archie Johnson, was a dormitory counselor for 30 years. One summer, he was part of a crew that painted the school’s massive barn — with only a ladder. The barn will become a shared event space for NCSD and NCSSM. photograph by Jack Sorokin
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In 1968, four years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act and more than a decade after 15-year-old Dorothy Counts was famously pictured walking past a taunting white mob at the just-desegregated Harding High in Charlotte, Benjamin Franklin Benson became one of the first African-American graduates of NCSD. He’d grown up in Swan Quarter and became deaf at age 12 after contracting spinal meningitis. It’s a rainy day in Connecticut when I reach Benson via FaceTime. He recently retired from his post as assistant dean at the American School for the Deaf in West Hartford, the oldest school for the deaf in the country. As we sign to each other, the Wi-Fi connection dips in and out, the screen freezing on Benson’s smile, hazy at the edges in the storm light that filters into the room. “I didn’t realize back then that I was one of the first black students to go to NCSD,” he says. “I don’t remember thinking if it would be more racist or not. In my town, blacks and whites were separated, so I didn’t think it would be very different.”
Until the 1960s, prevailing trends in deaf education discouraged sign language.
At NCSD, there were only a couple of other African-American students his age. An African-American kitchen worker named Henry befriended him, and Benson remembers Ed Plemmons, the head of his dorm, Hoffmeyer Hall, being especially welcoming — if anyone gave Benson any trouble, he was to let Plemmons know.
“Once, I had a disagreement with another student about boxing,” Benson says. “Ali versus Frazier. He told me, ‘You only like Ali because you’re an n-word.’ I won’t tell you what I did to him, but I will tell you he never bothered me again” — as Benson recounts the story, the screen freezes and unfreezes on his laughter — “and nobody else did either.”
The spring of 1968 is also when my parents met. My mother had just begun student-teaching, and my father was working in the dormitory. He remembers Benson, who was assigned to a different counselor, and he recalls how the school became progressively more diverse and the students more socially integrated in the years that followed. NCSD’s enrollment peaked in the 1970s, in part due to a rubella outbreak in the 1960s, and North Carolina added the Central School for the Deaf in Greensboro. (The Eastern School for the Deaf in Wilson was founded in 1964.) Starting in the 1980s, the students attending NCSD from all over the state were bused home every weekend.
Deaf education has evolved in the 125 years since NCSD opened. For decades, students went home for just a couple of days at Christmastime; otherwise, they were fully immersed in the life of the school. photograph by NCSD Historical Museum
As in deaf schools around the country, NCSD’s overall enrollment has declined in recent years, but the school retains a strong spirit of deaf pride. Posters around campus remind staff members and visitors to sign even when using their voices. The print shop is gone, but a strong robotics program has gained popularity; varsity football has been replaced by coed soccer. Chickens roost in one classroom, a revival of the agricultural program. Inside the former superintendent’s house, where Coma once delivered his extra suitcase, the NCSD Historical Museum is an ever-growing time capsule of the school’s long life. Here is a nurse’s woolen cape from the infirmary and a gorgeous old switchboard; here is a massive bell that, for some reason, was used to signal the class periods for deaf kids; here are trophies and yearbooks and vintage photographs of deaf Olympians and deaf poets, Boy Scouts and homecoming queens; and here are — my favorite — loose snapshots of everyday life at the school: drama club productions and the chorus singing in sign language; kids clowning around in class or in the swimming pool; kids petting one of the school’s herd, a cow named Bessie.
Outside the museum, another relic remains. The barn is built into a dip of a picturesque, high ridge that catches pink and orange rays at sunset, near the dividing line between NCSD and what will become the new campus of NCSSM. Though the barn’s agricultural days are long gone, once renovated, the structure will be shared between the two schools, most likely as an event space. It’s difficult, unless you get up close, to fully comprehend its vast scale or its strangely noble, almost human presence.
A summer ago, as my father and I walked its perimeter, I leaped up, trying to peek through the taller windows. He casually reminded me that when I was a kid, he’d been part of a crew that painted the entire building, and they’d done so with only a ladder — no scaffolding. It’s possible that the barn hasn’t had a paint job since then. Its white surfaces are peeling and weathered, proudly showing off its old marks, anticipating its second life.
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