Excerpts from

Sounds Like Home:  Growing Up Black and Deaf in the South

By Mary Herring Wright

[Used by Permission from Gallaudet University Press © 1999]

[Note: Mary Herring Wright was born about 1923 in rural North Carolina.  She attended the North Carolina School for Black Deaf and Blind students. In 2004, she was awarded an honorary bachelor's degree from Gallaudet University].


"I ... decided to write my story for my many deaf friends because my story, in many ways, is also their story. "  (pg. x)


(pgs. 74 & 84)

[Mary describes her experiences after she began becoming deaf at age 8].


"When I would see the rest of the family laughing and talking about something, and I couldn't join in, I go out to where the dogs were and talk to them.  At least they were glad for my company.  I felt they were my best friends."

*                *                *                *                *                *

"...The dogs, cats, and other animals were my friends.  I read old schoolbooks, learning what I could.  But sometimes I'd look at my family gathered at the table or sitting on the porch talking about something, and when they'd all laugh, I felt like I'd just as well be dead because I was so shut off from the rest of them.  On the porch after dark when I couldn't see them talk, I'd lay my head on Mama's lap and feel her voice vibrate when she talked. I try so hard to understand a word or two...Mama would stroke my hair and I'd calm down.  At times though, I'd go into a temper, yell, and throw things.  I knew they disliked me---all but Mama. So Queen (her dog) and I roamed the dusty fields finding a watermelon here and there.  I d' bust one and squat in the shade to eat what I could of it, and Queen would eat some too...."


(pg. 88-92)

[Mary's family decided to send her to the school for the Deaf when she was about 10 years old.  Mary remembers the train ride to the school and her first day.]


"...  An older girl who was deaf kept making gestures for me not to cry, that there'd be lots of children for me to play at with, and that I'd have a good time.

'And now wipe your eyes and hush' she gestured to me.

That was my friend, Margie Butler...

The train started chugging and moving slowly.  This couldn't be me sitting here on this thing carrying me away from home, the fields and the woods, Queen and the other dogs, the schoolhouse, and the church.  I saw them all in my mind and cried harder.  Then someone pulled my head up and hugged me, telling me not to cry and make myself ugly. It was Margie.  Then another young girl came and sat across from me.  She also made motions for me not to cry.  That was Helen Johnson.  When I had calmed down, Margie left to visit with others in the car.  It turned out to be a special car carrying only deaf and blind students to school.  A tall, very good-looking older boy came up, smiled at me, patted me on the head, and made some motions.  I did not understand but was cheered just the same.  This was to be my play father, David Mitchell from Wilmington. 

The train was rocking on down the tracks now and my tears had slowed to just a drop now and then. Another girl who seemed to be Helen's friend had gotten on the train and was sitting with me and Helen also making gestures for me not to cry and that I would have a good time, lots of good things to eat, and so on.  Her name was Elizabeth.  Another plump, pretty girl was named Sadie, and a smaller frisky one was named Cora Armstrong.  I started trying to gesture like them ...

The train came to a halt and I followed my newfound friends out into a cold, empty, gloomy waiting room.  We sat and stood around for awhile until a man came in and signed something to the other children.  I got up and followed them onto another train.  This one was dim and kind of old and dirty.  By now, I wasn't surprised at anything these people did or where we went.  I was not longer home, just a lost soul out in the night.  Finally, this train also ground to a halt.  I looked out the window, and saw not a light anyplace, but the same man got up from someplace in the car and herded us all off.

We seemed to be in the middle of nowhere---no buildings and not lights except from the train.  We followed the tracks for awhile, then turned off on a graveled road.  I could see a few lights up ahead now.  Soon we were on a cement walk, passing dark buildings that some of the crowd turned off to go into.  Then the girls I was with turned into a two-story brick building.  The steps led up to a small, closed porch.  Standing there was a plump, sweet-faced lady with short hair that was very white and soft-looking.  She smiled and greeted each of the other girls.  Margie pointed at me and signed something and went through the door leading upstairs.

The lady looked down at me and smiled, then bent and hugged and kissed me.  I felt warm again.  Taking my hand, she led me through another door along with Helen and Elizabeth.  Going down a long hall, she opened another door.  This was a long room, almost the length of the building, with a row of small white beds on either side.  Everything was white like a hospital-walls, beds, spreads, chairs and a few dressers.  The other two girls already knew where their beds were and went to them.  The lady was Mrs. Mallette, housemother for the deaf girls' dormitory.

She lead me to a bed, turned back the covers, then took me to a heavy white door at the end of the room and showed me that it was the bathroom. It had rows of toilets in stalls, washbasins, and showers.  Leading me back to the bed, she made motions for me to take off my dress and sweater and go to bed....Mrs. Mallette waited until I'd finished and gotten in bed, then turned out the lights and left me in the dark...

When I opened my eyes again it was day.  I was in a room full of about 25 girls."


(pgs. 96, 119-121, 134-135 and 223)

"Life settled into a regular routine of meals, classes, play periods, study hours after supper (7:00 to 9:00), and lights out.  I learned to sign, made a few more friends, and talked with some teachers....

*                *                *                *                *                *

"...The woods and hills behind our school had a lot of hickory nut walnut, and gum trees.  They were something beautiful when the leaves turned color.  The woods looked like pure gold with a little green.  I'd gaze out of the third floor classroom, longing to be out there.  Sometimes the teachers had to come and shake me to remind me of what I was in the room for.  I asked some of the older girls if we could walk out there.  They said, "No, no, no, no.  And get beat?  Locked up?  Not me."

I had to get in those woods.  I'd found a friend in another girls with the same love for the outdoors as I had.  This was Maybur Richardson.  She was a year or so older than me and taller.  I never knew her race.  Our school was for Blacks but she and all her family looked White-long, straight brown or blondish hair and blue or green eyes.  Most of the other kids shunned her and said she smelled like White people.  I never smeller her and didn't care what color or race she was; she was a kindred spirit.  We slid down the stair banisters, played hopscotch on the walks, and raced each other.  We finally found a young teacher we could talk into take some of us for a walk in the hills and woods on a bright fall Saturday afternoon...

We set out passing the shoe repair shop, the heating plant, and the furniture shop.  Turning west we passed the two shops where the blind boys learned to make brooms and mattresses, then the large yellow two-story house I had thought was the Sunday-school building when I first came.  Mr. Whitney, the engineer lived there with his family and the kitchen help and maids.  Then we crossed the railroad tracks.  Next came the school's diary, and we stopped to see where our milk came from.  The buildings were very clean.  All the stalls had clean wood shavings on the floor and I loved the smell because it reminded me of our cow at home.  Some of the boys were about and asked what we were doing over there and where we were going.  The teacher said, "don't talk to them," and herded us out.

By now we were up the first of the hills and could look back down on campus.  I could hardly stand my joy..."

*                *                *                *                *                *

"...I'd been desperately trying to get transferred upstairs to the junior department (the year she was 12 years old)  Maybe Mrs. Holbrook was trying to spare me some of the pains of growing up, but finally gave in.  One evening after school I came in to find she'd had another bed set up for me on the south side of the the upstairs floor...Upstairs was very different from downstairs:  More was happening since our housemother was down with the babies.  She checked the second-floor rooms often, but someone always spotted her on the stairs and warned the others.  After 9:00 inspection and lights-out, she was gone for the night.  That's when the fun started.  Someone would sneak food in from the kitchen-bread, wieners, sometimes twenty-five pound cans of jelly and peanut butter.  The food was only for a certain bunch who made up the "in" crowd.  The rest of us weren't supposed to see or know anything.

The older girls could also talk to their boyfriends across campus.  They'd turn a light on at a certain window in a corner.  The boys would do likewise.  A girl would stand in front of the window making signs to whoever was her guy.  After they signed each other good night, another couple went through the same routine.  This was done in the room I slept in since it faced south and the boys dormitory.  Never one to hide my curiosity, I lay wide-eyed, watching them.  When they noticed, they told me to shut my big eyes or look the other way.  I was new and they didn't know how trustworthy I was.  I let them know my eyes were mine and I'd do with them what I pleased."

*                *                *                *                *                *

"...When I was in school, I was with others like myself and I knew what was being discussed and could just speak up and say what I thought.  I fit in and was looked up to by my peers.  I took pride in the things I was capable of doing and I had fun with the other kids.  I enjoyed the use of bathrooms, running water, and electric lights..."


(pgs. 144-145, 178-180)

I also took to visiting the blind girls' dormitory directly behind us.  I'd made friends with several of the girls-some totally blind, others partially so.  Some of them learned to sign and fingerspell.  The ones who could see at all learned to fingerspell by carefully feeling my hand as I formed each letter...

*                *                *                *                *                *

I went over to the blind girls' dorm for one of my Saturday visits and found the crowd I buddied with had gathered in one of the music rooms for a meeting.  They pounced on me and started asking questions so fast I couldn't get what they were saying.  I told them to cool down and come one at a time so I'd know what they were asking me.

"What do you think of this school?"

"Why can't we go uptown and shop?"

"What do you see going on around you?"

They said they were fed up with being treated like prisoners and wanted a new school system.  They told of injustices by teachers and for me to tell the deaf girls and boy s what they said, so we could all protest.  One girl, Ruth, was from a well-to-do family right here in Raleigh, and her people visited her every Sunday.  They knew newspaper reporters and said they would send them out to investigate.  An investigation did occur after I finished school and Hill and Flossie wrote and told me about the change that took place, including the firing of some of the staff.

This was my introduction to politics and it turned out to be quite a meeting.  I was appointed chief reporter (or spy) for the deaf girls.  I was to be the group's eyes and report every important thing I saw.  They'd be our ears and report all they heard.  I agreed, but wondered how my dorm=mates would respond.  I hadn't long to wonder.  When I mentioned it to some of them in a roundabout way, most were indifferent and said let the blind girls tend to their own business, best thing to do was whack the teachers and hearing people over the head if they bothered them.  Margie advised me to leave it alone, or I'd be in trouble.  Only Hill and Flossie were interested.

Once, we went to a program in town at the school for White blind children.  Afterwards, we were given a tour of their campus and the differences between their school and ours were unbelievable.  In stead of long rooms with rows of beds, all with whites spreads and only shades at the windows, they lived in a family-type houses with only a few bedrooms to each building and two or three to a room.  Each house had a nice homey living room, a dining room with white tablecloths, and china, silver, and glassware instead of the bare tabletops and metal places and cups we were accustomed to.  The bedrooms had pretty colored spreads and ruffled curtains.  The auditorium was beautiful with a sloping floor, comfortable individual seats, and a stage with rich red velvet curtains and floodlights, plus a heated swimming pool and gym in another wing.  Ours was a level floor with hard wooden benches and no stage of curtains.

Mr. Lineberry had meant to give us a good time by inviting us to attend the play put on by some Meredith College students.  We did enjoy that, but seeing such a difference in how the White children were treated and how we were treated at the Black state school left us depressed and angry.  That's why Flossing and Hill and a very few more were willing to help the blind girls with their protest.  Some of the girls couldn't get over seeing a heated indoor swimming pool while we didn't even have a bathtub in our bathrooms-only lavatories and showers and commodes.  When we told this to the blind girls at the next meeting, they were mad!  Thelma and Catherine, the leaders, promised they would get them all, and get them they did, but not right away.


(pg. 220-221)

"We could, however, see the grim, gray walls of the North Carolina State Prison in the distance on a clear day {from the Deaf school].  Some of the older girls had been there for a visit.  One of our own, named Raymond, was locked up in there.  I didn't know him because he was in school before my time.  Margie and others knew him and talked of him often, how handsome and nice he was.  He had graduated or dropped out before I became a student, and he worked in the area doing odd jobs.

One night a White couple he'd worked for heard a noise and got up to investigate.  They found an open window and a cap on the ground beneath.  The cap was Raymond's and had his name in it.  With this evidence they turned him in.  At the trial he was found guilty of first-degree burglary and sentenced to the gas chamber.  He couldn't talk on the witness stand, but later told some of the deaf girls that it wasn't him in the house that night, that he had lost his cap someplace.  No matter, he was sentenced to die.

His mother came to our school one Sunday after visiting him. She looked very old and frail, needing assistance to walk.  She said she was doing all she could to get him out and had made an appointment to see the governor.  We learned later that she did get to see the governor and had pleaded for her boy's life, telling him how sick it was making her.  He took pity on her, and Raymond's death sentence was commuted to life in prison by then-governor Clyde Hoey.  The girls who went to see him came back shocked, saying how he looked like a sick old man, all bent over."


(pg. 228)

"And here I was a senior.  Sitting in Mrs. Edmondson's room, I gazed out the window at the same scene I'd looked upon thought all that water in my eyes years ago:  the two-lane drive up to our administration building, the little white wooden store besides the highway and the few houses around it, and beyond, the woods leading south to home.  Now, as then, the September sun lay on dusty bushes, and treetops were already beginning to turn the same bright colors below fluffy with clouds.  I could see myself with my head on the desk in Miss Hayes's room crying to go home.  I'd come a long way since then, but I felt sad now also.  Miss Hayes and so many more were gone, and where?  What was I to do after my school days?  I realized I'd grown to think of this place not as a prison but as a second safe home, and the people in it as sort of another family.  They were people I understood and felt comfortable with."