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19th century 20th century Fontenelle Miller Park North Omaha schools

A History of the Nebraska School for the Deaf in North Omaha

In 1869, a Deaf man named William DeCoursey French founded the Nebraska School for the Deaf on 23 acres northwest of the City of Omaha. Today, the school is gone and the former campus is blended in with the rest of North Omaha. Its legacy is far from over though.

Nebraska School for the Deaf, 3223 North 45th Street, North Omaha, Nebraska
This is a circa 1910s pic of the Nebraska School for the Deaf campus.

Long, tall grasses blown over slowly by subtle prairie winds… Poofy summer clouds gliding aloof over the hills around you… Hard winter walks through deep snow you can feel crunchy underfoot… You’re here for school, so you concentrate on your studies… But the sky is beautiful…

In 1869, a Deaf man named William DeCoursey French founded the Nebraska School for the Deaf on 23 acres northwest of the City of Omaha. Today, the school is gone and the former campus is blended in with the rest of North Omaha. Its legacy is far from over though.

1893 Nebraska School for the Deaf class
Students work in the art studio at the Nebraska School for the Deaf during the 1893-1894 school year.

A National Movement

Nebraska School for the Deaf, North 42nd and Bedford Avenue, North Omaha, Nebraska
Here’s a 1911 picture of students laying the foundation for a new greenhouse at the Nebraska School for the Deaf.

In the early 19th century, there was a wave of interest, compassion and action for people regarded as “deaf and dumb” in the United States. Starting in New York in 1817, schools opened up specifically to teach them across the country.

In the 1860s, Nebraska emerged from a decade as a territory and became a state. Within two years, the state sought to meet its obligation to educate all of it’s students. In 1869, they funded a new school committed to teaching the Deaf. Located at present-day 3223 N. 45th Street, then it was four miles from the city and almost a mile north of the town of Benson.

Working hard to meet the real needs of students, educators at the school were frequently criticized and/or lauded for their attempts. For instance, in 1893 the school’s superintendent was cited for encouraging teachers to use innovative techniques for classroom teaching. Some of those practices included combing boys and girls in the same classrooms, as well as teaching students from different grades in different classes.


Awkward Times

Nebraska School for the Deaf, North 42nd and Bedford Avenue, North Omaha, Nebraska
This is the Nebraska School for the Deaf student body in the 1894-1895 school year.

The Nebraska Legislature came after the school in 1911. That year, the National Education Association and Alexander Graham Bell rallied strongly across the United States against American Sign Language, believing that learning it stigmatized and isolated Deaf students. Bell funded the main lobbyist organization, called the American Association to Promote the Teaching of Speech to the Deaf. In response, the Legislature passed a bill banning the use of American Sign Language at the school.

That year, Frank Booth, the school superintendent wrote about American Sign Language, saying, “That language is not now used in the school-room and I hope to do away with its use outside the school-room.”

The ban didn’t last long, and within a few years the school was openly teaching in American Sign Language again.

The school’s students and staff were always strong and determined. In 1931, they made history by becoming the first Deaf school in the nation to win an all-classes state basketball championship. A graduate of the school was the coach.

In 1937, there were 10 buildings on the campus. They included the primary dormitory, a shop, the main building, a hospital, an auditorium, a boys dormitory, a school building, a heating plant and a laundry.

Nebraska School for the Deaf, North Omaha, Nebraska
This is a kindergarten class at the Nebraska School for the Deaf during the 1896-1897 school year.

A teacher at the school named George Propp studied the spending practices of the school and predicted their coming financial difficulties in the 1970s.

Discussing current concepts of Deaf education, Propp stated that Deaf schools “will require a massive application of the resources that exist, as well as the development of technology that lies beyond our present dreams.”


Fighting for Its Life

Nebraska School for the Deaf, North Omaha, Nebraska
A 1914 picture of the Nebraska School for the Deaf campus. Notice the streetcar tracks in the bottom righthand corner.

By 1984, some Nebraska State legislators and the Nebraska Department of Education attempted to discredit the school to have it closed. Nebraska’s Deaf community successfully defended the school that year, and for the almost 15 years after. Descending on the Omaha Association of the Deaf Hall, members of local, regional and national Deaf advocacy organizations created a strategy to keep the school open. The Nebraska School for the Deaf Alumni Association, or NSDAA, fought hard. A massive rally was held in 1998, and everyone fought hard.

The school was closed in 1998.  Enrollment dropped and student costs climbed, and with only 40 students enrolled that year, it just didn’t work anymore.


Architecture

Nebraska School for the Deaf, North Omaha, Nebraska
A diagram showing the Nebraska School for the Deaf campus in 1937.

With 10 buildings constructed on the campus by the 1930s, the original construction at the Nebraska School for the Deaf featured the Collegiate Gothic architecture style made of red brick with sandstone details. However, several buildings were replaced in the 1960s and 1970s in the Mid-Century Modern style. Some of the buildings that were removed or replaced included the hospital, the wood and metal shop, the Boys Department and Teachers’ Hall, and the industrial arts building.

Today, the buildings remaining on the campus include:

  • Administration Building—Built in 1959 in the Midcentury Modern style from a design by Cecil Martin and Associates.
  • Industrial Arts Building—Built in 1931 in the Collegiate Gothic style similar to a cathedral.
  • Classroom Building—Built in 1928 with designs by Leo A. Daly, it was added onto in 1955 in the Tudor Revival style with Collegiate Gothic elements.
  • Boys Dorm—Built in 1934, the boys dorm was built in the Collegiate Gothic style with a Mid-Century Modern addition in the 1970s.
  • Power House—Built in 1936 in the Gollegiate Gothic style.
  • Laundry Building—Built around the 1930s.
  • Primary School—Built in 1967 from a design by Martin Money and Associates in the Mid-Century Modern style. It includes a courtyard.
  • Gymnasium—Built in 1965 in the Mid-Century Modern style with a swimming pool.
  • Carriage House—Built in the 1930s or earlier in the Collegiate Gothic style.
  • Girls Dormitory—Built in 1969 from a design by Martin Money and Associates, this building was designed in the Mid-Century Modern style.
  • Superintendent’s Home—Built in 1955 in the Mid-Century Modern style.
Nebraska School for the Deaf, North Omaha, Nebraska
These students are working in the Nebraska School for the Deaf wood shop in the late 1890s.

Regional programs created statewide now provide services that once happened only at the school. The State of Nebraska funds these, and also helps local school districts pay tuition and residential costs at nearby states’ schools for the deaf for students who require a residential program.

In 1998, the twenty-three acre campus was sold to a private religious foundation for $2.5 million. Today, its home to many projects and programs, including Big Mama’s Kitchen and Catering, which is a spectacular soul food restaurant.


Remembering What Was

Nebraska School for the Deaf, North Omaha, Nebraska
This is a photo of the Nebraska School for the Deaf campus during the 1893-1894 school year. Italianate designs are complimented by Vernacular efforts and some Victorian-esque work on the far left.

In 2001, the Nebraska School for the Deaf Alumni Association opened the Nebraska School for Deaf Museum located on the original campus. The museum’s exhibits focus on the history of the school, issues in education and communication within the deaf community and contributions made by deaf people in America. Four rooms have been outfitted to show period life at the school, including a 1930s school room, an athletic display, a 1950s teen club and a 1970s dorm room. There is also some art and woodwork created by school students in the early 20th century.

In September 2019, the remaining school buildings were listed on the National Register of Historic Places as the Nebraska School for the Deaf Historic District.

When the school closed, things changed in Nebraska’s Deaf community. However, the impact of the school continues today.


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Bonus Pics!

Here is an aerial picture of the campus from the 1950s. Notice all the buildings are numbered? Help me figure out which is which! Share your comments below please…

Nebraska School for the Deaf, North Omaha, Nebraska.
A 1910s postcard of the Nebraska School for the Deaf.
Nebraska School for the Deaf, North Omaha, Nebraska
According to Jack H. Jackson, the following are buildings on the Nebraska School for the Deaf in this aerial pic: 1. Laundry; 2. Boiler Plant; 3. Vocational Class Room Building (Print Shop, Carpentry Shop, Home Ec., etc.); 4. Class Room Building; 5. Gymnasium; 6. Boys’ Dormitory; 7. First Class Room Building (Administration Offices moved to here in the 1950s); 8. Administration Building, Superintendent’s Apartment and Staff living quarters on top floor; 9. Students’ Dining Room, Superintendent’s Dining Room and Kitchen. Recreation Room/Gymnasium on lower level before Gymnasium constructed; 10. Staff Living Quarters; 11. Maintenance Garage; 12. Girls’ Dormitory and Teen Rec. Room on the east end of the first floor.
An aerial shot from the last years of the Nebraska School for the Deaf between 1995 and 1998.
An aerial shot from the last years of the Nebraska School for the Deaf between 1995 and 1998.
Nebraska School for the Deaf, North Omaha, Nebraska
An 1877 Sanborn map of the Nebraska School for the Deaf. Note that “Institute Boulevard” is now called Fontenelle Boulevard.
This is a 1958 aerial pic of the Nebraska School for the Deaf.
This is a 1958 aerial pic of the Nebraska School for the Deaf.

12 replies on “A History of the Nebraska School for the Deaf in North Omaha”

Enjoyed this article
Family attended deaf school
Do you have info on early dairy farms in Florence great grandfather
Krambeck late 1800’s?

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I worked on this property pulling fiber optic cable. Below the building is a series of steam tunnels. It very much appears to be holding cells that have been dismantled. Very creepy place. I was very uneasy when working alone.

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Jack H. Jackson (Grandson of the Superintendent J. W. Jackson, who served as Superintendent for 36 years)says:

I am responding to your question regarding the identities of the buildings on the campus shown in the photo above. These are the ones I know:
1. Laundry
2. Boiler Plant
3. Vocational Class Room Building (Print Shop, Carpentry Shop, Home Ec., etc.)
4. Class Room Building
5. Gymnasium
6. Boys’ Dormitory
7. First Class Room Building (Administration Offices moved to here in the 1950s)
8. Administration Building, Superintendent’s Apartment and Staff living quarters on top floor
9. Students’ Dining Room, Superintendent’s Dining Room and Kitchen. Recreation Room/Gymnasium on lower level before Gymnasium constructed.
10. Staff Living Quarters
11. Maintenance Garage
12. Girls’ Dormitory and Teen Rec. Room on the east end of the first floor

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I would love to see the museum in Omaha . I live in Omaha. My sister is deaf and attended the school in 1940-50’s. I would love to see any thing about it. Her name was Agnes Dunn. Her family would love to have these memories. Can anyone help me?

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Leave a Reply to Jack H. Jackson (Grandson of the Superintendent J. W. Jackson, who served as Superintendent for 36 years) Cancel reply

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