This is the grave of Helen Keller (or near it anyway).
Born in 1880 in Tuscumbia, Alabama, Keller’s family was reasonably well enough; her father had committed treason in defense of slavery and was a captain in the treason army and then became a newspaper editor. But at the age of 19 months, Keller suffered from something that no amount of respectability could change: meningitis. This left her both blind and deaf. This of course meant that this toddler had no way to communicate and lived in a life she later described “at sea in a dense fog.” She figured out some ways to communicate with her family, but obviously it was incredibly limited. Her parents were desperate to find something to help their daughter. They found a doctor who referred them to Alexander Graham Bell, who in addition to inventing the telephone was one of the nation’s experts in working with deaf children. Bell sent them to the Perkins School for the Blind, who sent one of their own success stories, Anne Sullivan, to Keller. They would remain together for years, including after Sullivan married.
Sullivan taught Keller how to communicate by spelling out words on her own hand for objects she could feel. It was a long and arduous process but it opened up the world for this young isolated girl. When she figured out what was happening–with water, running over her one hand as Sullivan wrote out the word on her other–it all clicked. Keller later wrote: “I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten — a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that w-a-t-e-r meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. The living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, set it free.”
Keller started attending school in 1888 and was so brilliant and so determined to get an education that she was able to attend some of the best schools for the blind and deaf in the country, all the way to the point that she attended Radcliffe because Mark Twain who had heard about her story and introduced some of her rich friends to her who paid for her education. She graduated in 1904 as the first deaf-blind person to earn a BA degree. By this time, she was already internationally famous, having published her memoir The Story of My Life in 1903. Wanting to communicate with people in any way possible, she learned to speak herself by putting her fingers against the throat of people talking to learn how to make sounds that she could not hear to form words.
Keller went so far to become a public speaker, amazing people. Moreover, she became a fierce advocate for justice. Yes, she certainly argued for the rights of the disabled, but she extrapolated from her own experiences to fight for justice against oppression of all sorts. She became a member of the Socialist Party in 1909 and of the Industrial Workers of the World in 1912 when she felt the Socialists were getting bogged down in electoral politics and not fighting for revolutionary liberation for the working classes. She supported birth control, attacked Woodrow Wilson for his racism, and helped found the American Civil Liberties Union. Focusing on the blind, she blamed industrial conditions and the unsafe work of America for blinding people and demanded government change for doing so.
Like a whole lot of people at this time, Keller also dabbled in eugenics, arguing that severely disabled children could be euthanized and believing that overpopulation was a major problem the world faced. Before we go too far in criticizing her here, remember that eugenics at the time ran the gamut and that there were plenty of Black eugenicists too. The science was hopelessly flawed and of course racism and other forms of supremacy were ultimately behind it, but it attracted a lot of attention not only from open racists but across the political spectrum as an attempt to scientifically build a better race of humans. She also suffered from these beliefs. When Sullivan was sick, she met a Boston Herald reporter and fellow socialist named Peter Fagan. They fell in love and wanted to marry. But her parents put a stop to that, believing that blindness and deafness would create malformed children and thus she a woman as Helen Keller should not reproduce.
Keller wrote a number of books after The Story of My Life. Her 1908 book The World I Live In attempted to express to the non-blind and deaf what her life was like. A religious searcher as she was in everything else, she became a follower of Swedenborg and wrote a 1927 book called My Religion about her spirituality. A media friendly figure, she starred as herself in the 1919 film Deliverance. Patty Duke played her in the 1962 film The Miracle Worker, for which Duke won Best Supporting Actress and Anne Bancroft Best Actress for playing Sullivan. There was a 1954 documentary about her titled Helen Keller in Her Story that won Best Documentary at the Academy Awards.
Later in life, Keller traveled the world doing fundraising for the blind and deaf and raising awareness about social issues. She had a series of strokes in 1961 that ended that part of her life, but she was still functional and met Patty Duke during the making of her biopic. In 1964, Lyndon Johnson awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She died at her home in Connecticut in 1968, at the age of 87.
Now, I actually have a personal Helen Keller story. Or sort of anyway. I have no idea how I could remember this except that I never, ever, ever let go of a grudge. When I was maybe 9 or 10 or so, I was forced to go to Sunday School by my parents. For whatever reason, and of course nearly 40 years later I can’t remember any real details, we were talking about Helen Keller. If you want to ask what Keller has to do with Sunday School, we were Lutherans so Bible beating isn’t really how we rolled. Anyway, as a kid who was always curious, I asked: If Keller was both blind and deaf, how did someone manage to teach her? And I maintain lo these long decades past that this is a pretty good question for a kid to have! But instead, the guy teaching the class told me that I needed to stop saying that people who are blind and deaf can’t learn. I was outraged! I wasn’t saying that! Anyway, teachers should actually listen to questions students ask. This isn’t much of a story, but it’s my story and I wanted to tell it. Says a bit about my personality I suppose.
Helen Keller is buried in the National Cathedral, Washington, D.C.
If you would like this series to visit other key figures in the history of American disability, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. John Hendren Bell, the awful one in the Buck v. Bell forced sterilization case, is in Mount Solon, Virginia (I cannot find any grave info for Carrie Buck) and Mary Switzer, one of the first major disability rights advocates in the federal government, is in Alexandria, Virginia. Previous posts in this series are archived here.