Saturday, April 20, 2024

A school and not an asylum: 125th anniversary of Austin school for deaf, blind blacks

“This institution is neither an orphan asylum, a children’s home, an asylum for embeciles, nor a hospital, but it is a school for the educable blind and deaf.”

When the Institute of Deaf, Dumb and Blind Colored Youths opened on Oct. 17, 1887- 125 years ago this month- with 17 pupils and two teachers at 4101 Bull Creek Road, it was hailed by the Texas Legislature as proof that the state was compassionate citizens mattered. The school, opened with an11-room residence, then added a two-story brick building the next year, was located where the TxDOT complex now sits. The State is currently entertaining bids to develop that land, with Stratus Properties submitting a proposal to build two apartment complexes, two three-story buildings, an HEB and other retail.

Founded with a $50,000 appropriation from the Texas Legislature under Gov. Lawrence “Sui” Ross to buy 108 acres and build a school and dormitories about two and a half miles northwest of the capitol, the school became an area of research to me in 2007, when it was discovered that gospel music pioneer Arizona Dranes (1889- 1963) learned to play the piano there. A barrelhouse thumper, who made what are considered the first true gospel recordings in 1926 in Chicago, Dranes attended the institute two and a half miles northeast from the State Capitol, from ages 7 to 23.

Born and raised in Sherman, Texas, 260 miles to the north, to illiterate parents, Dranes was almost certainly sponsored by Sherman teacher J.W. McKinney, who taught at the Frederick Douglass School, where Dranes would’ve attended if she wasn’t blind. Also the head of the black Masonic Lodge of Texas, McKinney spoke at the blind school’s 1902 commencement (when Dranes was 13), urging students to make full use of whatever gifts God had given. Five students had died of pneumonia that year. He ended his speech with a downplay of the era’s racism.

“The fact that you are here, my friends, surrounded by all the comforts and facilities at public expense, these spacious buildings and beautiful grounds furnished for you, gives lie to (the belief that) whites have no regard for the rights of blacks,” he said.

Among “Arazoni”’s teachers was mixed media artist Mattie B. White, who taught students to crochet and weave baskets and rugs. Also a African American historian, credited with popularizing the Juneteenth celebration, White taught at the deaf and blind school for 40 years.

Dranes’ music teachers included Miss M.A. Jackson (1900), Lizzie Wells (1908) and Mabel Scott (1912). Curriculum records kept at the Texas State Library show that Dranes was no musical primitive, as previously believed by biographers, but classically trained in voice and piano at the school. Playing music was considered a good way for the blind to make a living, in addition to broom making and basket weaving.

In 1943, the Institute combined with the Colored Orphans Home and was renamed Texas Blind, Deaf and Orphans School. It remained on Bull Creek Road until 1961, when the school moved to 601 Airport Boulevard, the former location of the Montopolis Drive In movie theater.

The impetus behind the school’s creation in 1887 was William H. Holland, a black state representative from Waller County.  Born into slavery near Marshall in 1841, Holland’s freedom was paid for in the  ‘50s by his white father Captain Bird Holland, a hero of the Mexican War, who would later become the Texas secretary of state. The Captain sent William and his other sons from slaves, Milton and James, to Ohio to be educated.

During the Civil War, the sons fought on the side of the Union, while their father was an officer in the Confederate Army, killed in action in 1864 at the battle of Mansfield, Louisiana.

After the war, W.H. Holland attended Oberlin College. Around 1869 he returned to Texas and became the high school prinicipal in Double Horn (pop. 50) in Burnet County. He joined the Republican Party, which was mostly white but welcomed black members in that era of Reconstruction, and through that affiliation Holland was able to make his entry into state politics. In 1876, he was elected into the Texas House of Representatives in 1876 from Waller County, where he had served as postmaster.

Public education of all Texans was Holland’s dominant platform. Citing an admendment to the state’s constitution that “Separate schools shall be provided for the white and colored children, and impartial provisions shall be made for both,” Holland challenged that since whites had Texas A&M, a similar college should be provided for blacks. As a consequence, the Fifteenth Legislature established “Alta Vista Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas for Colored Youth” in late 1876. Holland is known as “The Father of Prairie View A&M,” which is what the school’s name was changed to a few years later.

Holland was superintendent of the Institute of Deaf, Dumb and Blind Colored Youths from 1887- 1897, then was reappointed from 1904 until his death in 1907.

In another interesting Dranes connection to Austin, she was converted to Pentecostalism in 1922- at age 33 – by preacher J. Austin Love, who grew up the son of a laborer and teacher at 808 E. 11th St. Reverend Love met Dranes in Wichita Falls, where he founded the town’s first Church of God In Christ, in 1922. When the preacher was called to Fort Worth the next year to open the White Street Holiness Church, he took his prized piano-playing parishioner Dranes, whose musical career was launched in Fort Worth.

The White Street Holiness Church was renamed Love Chapel Church of God In Christ. Love was pastor there until 1933.









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