The Whatcoat Mission, founded in 1905 by Rev. Daniel E. Moylan in Baltimore, Maryland, is believed to be the oldest African American deaf church in the United States. The mission remained in operation until 1955 when it was formally integrated with the Christ United Methodist Church of the Deaf. 1

Rev. Louis Foxwell preached to a partially
integrated congregation. (Christ UMC archives.)

Though both churches shared a ministry, and eventually a building, they operated separately for fifty years. Given the context of American race relations throughout this period, it is perhaps unsurprising that white and black deaf people did not choose to share in the same social networks. However this divide is undoubtedly affected by the segregation of deaf residential education in most Southern deaf schools. As a result there were few circumstances in which white and deaf people would meet and interact.

This is demonstrated in the fact that “Black deaf individuals were often denied access to deaf clubs and organizations.”2 Deaf history indicates that this was largely motivated by “a deep desire to be accepted by mainstream society, a world dominated by whites.”3 The social perceptions of deaf people in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were deeply impacted by a shifting ideology regarding difference.

'The uneducated deaf mute is a most helpless person. He cannot communicate with anyone, and if he is poor there is nothing for him but the almshouse unless he is strong enough to work as a farm laborer or in some occupation where skill is not required.'4

Common perceptions of deaf people viewed them as largely incapable. An influx of immigration during this period, mixed with social Darwinism, and a shift to an industrial economy created an environment that was hostile to difference. These ideologies came to frame deaf people, particularly those who used sign language, as foreign.5 Contending with these images, the American deaf community frequently constructed images of themselves as hardworking, able-bodied Americans.6

The unique experiences of the black deaf men and women who attended the Whatcoat Mission in the first half of the twentieth century would be influenced by a great deal by the structure of deaf education. The social networks formed at residential deaf schools fostered the exchange of information, aided in finding marriage partners, and provided linguistic and cultural support for deaf students. The congregants of the Whatcoat Mission appear to have been drawn from the Maryland School for Colored Deaf in Baltimore, Maryland. At this segregated institution, they lacked access to the social benefits enjoyed by white counterparts housed in the Maryland School for the Deaf in Frederick, Maryland.

The social networks formed at residential deaf schools fostered the exchange of information, aided in finding marriage partners, and provided linguistic and cultural support for deaf students.

Despite a divided social history, the Whatcoat Mission would eventually merge with Christ Methodist as a united congregation. The process of this integration has yet to be fully explored and this site seeks to document that history. Carol Padden and Tom Humphries, Deaf History scholars, describe “The history of separate schools [as] one of lost histories.”7 Similarly, the history of social institutions, like the Whatcoat Mission have largely existed on the edges of existing histories.

This project is located within a larger effort to examine and locate the lives of deaf people within the American historical record. The field of Deaf History has identified a number of key features in the trajectory of deaf lives. These include deaf education and deaf social organizations. Each had a profound impact on the social, cultural and linguistic identities of deaf people.

A brief caveat on terminology: this paper will address the subject of deafness and disability from a cultural perspective rather than a medical model. A medical model emphasizes pathology, identifies deafness as a problem and marks deaf bodies as different. Rather in this text, deaf people are defined as members of a unique cultural and linguistic community. Beginning with James Woodward, scholars in the field of Deaf Studies and Deaf History adopted a naming convention that makes this distinction clear; “deaf” (with a lowercase “d” was used to denote the audiological condition of deafness, while “Deaf” (with a capital “D”) was used to refer to individuals who share a cultural and linguistic affiliation.8 Throughout this work, this convention is not utilized. This decision was made as part of a wider effort to recognize and unpack the” D/d” model as a twentieth century convention that refers to a particular configuration of identity categories and experiences. Given the barriers that black deaf people experienced in accessing mainstream white deaf culture and a lack of materials that indicate their self-identification, “deaf” as an inclusive term is used to refer to members of the American deaf community across a spectrum of audiological and linguistic abilities.

1 Charles Waters interview in The Best Is Yet to Come; The History of the Whatcoat Mission for the Colored Deaf, VHS (Christ United Methodist Church for the Deaf, 1995).

2 Carol Padden and Tom Humphries, Inside Deaf Culture (Cambridge, Mass.; London: Harvard University Press, 2006), 55.

3 Susan Burch, Signs of Resistance: American Deaf Cultural History, 1900 to World War II (New York: NYU Press, 2004), 39.

4 JWB, “Baltimore Letter,” Maryland Bulletin 18, no. 2 (October 1897): 2.

5 Burch,Signs of Resistance ; Baynton, Forbidden Signs.

6 Burch, Signs of Resistance , 4.

7 Padden and Humphries, Inside Deaf Culture, 41.

8 Carol Padden and Tom Humphries, “Learning to Be Deaf,” in Deaf in America: Voices from a Culture (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988), 2.