Sunday, May 28, 2017


What did people on the prairie do for their special needs children? It must have been so hard on families, trying to do the right thing for their children who were deaf, sight-impaired, or with other special needs that, at that time, the world was unequipped to deal with. This is an article about two remarkable women who opened schools for the blind and the deaf with little to no funding for these projects. Take a look at what they accomplished!

The Oklahoma School for the Blind was truly a pioneer institution. In 1897 Miss Lura A. Rowland, a graduate of the Arkansas School for the Blind and "a frail wisp of a girl," solicited funds and undertook to establish a school for the blind children of Indian Territory at Fort Gibson, Oklahoma. She operated the school without any government assistance for ten years, though there are reams of correspondence indicating she implored governors, congressmen, and other public officials to assist her struggling organization. She did present a case sufficient to be permitted the use of the old Barracks Building to house her school.

Concurrently, a Territorial School for the Deaf had been established in Guthrie in 1897 under a five-year contract to care for deaf children under boarding school regulations.


Miss Rowland traveled all over Indian Territory, appearing before the various tribal councils, presenting her needs. Since few Native Americans were blind until Europeans brought diseases causing blindness to the tribes, there was not the acceptance that might have been the case otherwise. During the first four years the institution was supported solely by contributions from the people of the Indian Territory and sympathizing states. In 1900 the Choctaw and Cherokee Nations each made appropriations for the education of blind Choctaw and Cherokee children. Repeated but unsuccessful efforts were made to have Congress aid the school through the Bureau of Indian Affairs. In 1907 the school became a state-supported institution. For "reasons variously stated," it was moved to Wagoner but soon returned to Fort Gibson.

Miss Rowland, now Mrs. Lowery, had used her own resources, begged for furniture, and convinced other teachers it was their patriotic duty to help her with her project. In addition, schools from various parts of the United States had helped her from time to time. So frugal was her operation that her financial statement upon her retirement indicated that she had operated the school the first ten years on a total of $15,048.44, besides contributions by various persons, including herself. In those ten years she had held eleven school terms from six weeks to nine months long for a total enrollment of fifty pupils.

Oklahoma's first legislature appropriated $5,000 on May 29, 1908, for the maintenance of the "Lura A. Lowery School for the Blind," and provided in the same act that the school be under the control of the State Board of Education. As a state institution the school was supported by legislative appropriations, varying from twenty to thirty thousand dollars yearly. A headline in the Muskogee Times-Democrat March 11, 1911, read: "Perry Miller Saves Blind School." Miller had authored a bill in the State House of Representatives to move the Oklahoma School for the Blind. Slid Garrett of Fort Gibson had introduced a similar bill in the State Senate. Mr. Miller knew that if the school was not moved to Muskogee, it would be moved to Tulsa. It remained in temporary quarters at Fort Gibson until June, 1913, when the fourth legislature acted to move it to Muskogee, Oklahoma.

Upon moving the school to Muskogee in 1911, first in a couple of temporary locations locally, the state began construction on several beautiful buildings of English architecture with steep roofs. The tornado of 1945 destroyed most of those roofs, demolished the gymnasium, in which three girls were killed, and wounded several others. In the rebuilding, flat roofs replaced the originals.

The school is outstanding in the annals of education, and brave little Lura Lowery deserves a great deal of credit for initiating and carrying on such a program. Helen Keller honored the school with a visit February 17, 1915 and was very complimentary of its administration. Superintendent Mrs. O.W. Stewart was voted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame in 1943 as a result of the outstanding record of the school. When Richard Carter retired as superintendent of the school in June 1979, after being associated with the school since 1939, he had completed the longest tenure of any like position in the nation and was considered an authority in the care and the teaching of the blind.

Following is a list of additional historical highlights:

1897 - 1907 Superintendent Mrs. Lura A. Lowery

1907 - 1911 Superintendent Mr. G.W. Bruce

1911 - 1925 Superintendent Mr. O.W. Stewart

1913 Oklahoma School for the Blind was moved to its present location in June in accordance with an act of the fourth Legislature. An 80 acre tract of land was donated by Governor C.N. Haskell.

1917 The Oklahoma Commission for the Adult Blind was established. The funds and services of this Commission were quite restricted and the primary thrust of the early program was the provision of limited home teaching services to the blind.

1920 The civilian Vocational Rehabilitation Program developed out of the effort to rehabilitate disabled veterans during and after WWI. On June 29, President Woodrow Wilson signed Public Law 66-236, creating the civilian rehabilitation act. This early program was limited in scope with primary services being counseling, guidance, job training and placement.

1920 Fifty acres of land south of the school was donated to the Oklahoma School for the Blind. This land is currently leased by the city of Muskogee and is known as Civitan Park.

1925 The Oklahoma Legislature passed enabling legislation empowering the State Board for Vocational Education to operate with the Federal Board of Vocational Education in the administration of an Act of Congress related to the promotion of vocational rehabilitation of persons disabled in industry or other, and their return to civil employment. However, this program was not funded by state appropriations until 1927.

Source Documents
"A History of the Oklahoma School for the Blind, 1897 - 1969", a document by Cleo Bowman Larason in 1953.
"A School History, 1897 - 1937, of the Oklahoma School for the Blind."


  1. Amazing and impressive. The world needs more people such as these. Blind or deaf--each hold unique challenges, and often it's someone not blind or deaf who find answers and do something about it. There's a residential school for the deaf in Austin--and it was also the first document "public" school of any kind in Austin. This school has grown in numbers and stature over the years. The high school had a football team, and years ago competed with the regular public schools. I don't think they do that now, though.
    Since I had a blind uncle, his condition has always intrigued me and I used what I knew about him to create "Old Blind Jarell" in Wish for the Moon.
    My how things have changed for the deaf and the blind. One of our daughter's high school friends is divorced and was living alone--working at the university. She had an office near an administrator--who was a youngish blind man. They now live together--she calls it "sharing a house."...and they get to the university separately. In other words, he didn't need her help. Oh, triva--his guide dog died not long ago, and she cried and he cried, and then she helped him find another "perfect" guide dog.
    Okay, I got off topic.
    Happy Memorial Day, and thanks for a thoughtful post.

    1. Celia, I think that is so cool about your daughter's friend and her co-worker. I tell you, in this day and age everyone has to have a roommate or TWO it seems to just get by! But so glad he had her there when his beloved dog died. Can't imagine going through that alone.

      My mom's dad had a brother who had cancer in his eyes. I remember her telling me about her grandmother having a "keepsake" box and in it were Bob's glasses. My great grandfather took him on the train to Dallas when he had to have surgery on his eyes. They removed one of his eyes and thought they had it all, but it came back into his other eye, and he told his mom and dad he didn't want to live as a blind man. They gave him the choice. He died when he was only 16. I don't think I could have done that. Sometimes, things that look so bleak at one point are not that way as time passes. I've always wondered at them, allowing him to decide something so momentous at such a young age. Maybe it was the fear of being so different that drove him to choose not to get that second operation.

      I remember you had based Old Blind Jarell on your uncle. I love it when we can draw on our own family experiences and characters for our fiction. Makes it so real!

  2. Yes, those women certainly should have been commended for their compassion and determination to help the blind and disabled children way back then. And you should be commended for such an informative and interesting post....thanks, Cheryl.

    1. Thanks, Cheri! I found this so interesting. I know the Oklahoma School for the Deaf is still in existence--the sign is up on I-35, or used to be.

      Those women were truly brave to set out to open up these schools and to make such successes out of them. Can't even imagine asking for funding for blind and deaf INDIAN children in those times. I'm sure they got laughed at to their faces.

  3. Wouldn't it be difficult to send your child away even though you knew the training would be invaluable? Great post, Cheryl, reminding us how fortunate we are.

    1. Remember in Little House on the Prairie when Mary went blind and went to school? I don't know how in the world a parent could make such a hard decision--it wasn't like you could just jump in the car and go check on them if you wanted to. Thanks for your kind words, Caroline!

  4. I feel so remiss in not thinking about special needs schools back in the pioneer days of the old west. I do remember how on the TV series, The Little House on the Prairie in which one of the daughters, Mary, became blind and they had to send her away to a special school for the blind. Rats, I just saw in your reply that you mentioned the episodes with Mary. Oh well.
    This was a such a good research piece on special needs schools back in the frontier days. You did an excellent job with this information, Cheryl.

    1. Thanks, Sarah. I must confess that most of this came from the compiled article on Wikipedia and the site for the school for the deaf. There was surprisingly little other info about these schools that I could find.

  5. How fortunate those children had such a passionate champion. But I was saddened to hear of your great-great uncles choice. We do forget that there were 'special needs' people in our past.

    Colorado was lucky, The Colorado School for the Deaf and Blind was founded in 1874 as The Colorado Institute for the Education of Mutes by Jonathan R. Kennedy, who had previously been steward at the Kansas State School For the Deaf.the school had seven students, three of whom were Kennedy's own children.His daughter Emma, who was deaf, later married another student, Frank H. Chaney, and they became the parents of the actor Lon Chaney. Colorado Springs' founder William Jackson Palmer was the land-grantor of several institutions in Colorado Springs, including the Colorado School for the Deaf and Blind.

    1. That is so interesting, Doris! It's really amazing to learn of all the people in the past that had the compassion and vision to do what they did in the beginning to get these schools up and running! Thanks for stopping by today.

  6. Even today it must be difficult to send a child to a boarding school. So many of these schools are known for their excellent education, and the academic scores are exceptional. The students seem to love it. But it's got to be hard on the family to let a child go.

    We could probably each do a post about the schools on the reservations without ever repeating the other. It's a huge topic. And I can imagine how difficult it was for Ms Lula Rowland because too many people didn't care what happened to our American Indians.


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