Honoring the Stories of Black Americans with Disabilities

When President Gerald Ford officially recognized Black History Month in 1976, he urged Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history…”

The story of our country has primarily been told from a singular perspective, with other experiences often minimized or erased completely. Over the last couple of centuries, Black Americans have had to fight to be heard and acknowledged. So it’s not surprising that their stories frequently exclude something which might marginalize them further: disability.

Like Black Americans, the accomplishments of people with disabilities are often overlooked or dismissed. However, Black history and disability history are closely intertwined and intersect. Early disability advocates watched and learned from the Black civil rights movement. Many Black disability activists were instrumental in shaping and advancing disability rights. And some of our country’s most important Black figures have had a disability. Today, we’d like to take a moment to remember and honor a few of them.

Black and white photo of Harriet TubmanHarriet Tubman (1822 – 1913)

Born into slavery, Harriet Tubman escaped in 1849 and became a leading abolitionist. She is known as the main “conductor” of the Underground Railroad, risking her life to help lead enslaved people to freedom. She also worked as a spy for the Union Army during the Civil War. What many people don’t know is that she also had a disability. She sustained a traumatic brain injury (TBI) as a young girl at the hands of an overseer, which left her with a seizure disorder. She described her seizures as “visions” and, rather than seeing them as a hindrance, believed they helped keep her safe while transporting people to freedom. Read more by clicking this link: Celebrate Harriet Tubman as an Icon of Black Disability History.

Roger Demosthenes O’Kelly (1880 – 1962)

After contracting scarlet fever as a child, O’Kelly became deaf and partially blind. As a teenager, he lost all sight in one eye as the result of a football injury. About that, he remarked that he had “one good eye left and would make it anyhow.” He attended and graduated from Shaw University after Gallaudet University rejected him due to his race. After earning his license to practice law, O’Kelly became the first Black Deaf lawyer in the country. In 1912, he became only the second Deaf person of any race to graduate from Yale when he earned his Bachelor’s degree. He eventually opened his own private law firm which thrived despite the obstacles he faced from discrimination and segregation.

Horace Pippin (1888-1946)

Self portrait artwork by Horace Pippin

Self Portrait II by Horace Pippin

Horace Pippin was a self-taught artist whose themes ranged from landscapes to Biblical subjects. He fought in France in WWI and became disabled after being shot in his right arm. Although he had always enjoyed drawing, he said, “World War I brought out the art in me.” At the age of 40, he taught himself to paint by using his uninjured left hand to guide his right. Pippin also had life-long depression, which he sometimes expressed in his artwork. His paintings were featured in exhibits in museums such as the Art Institute of Chicago, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the Tate Gallery in London. When he died, the New York Times eulogized him as the “most important Negro painter” in American history. Read more about him at Horace Pippin – Wikipedia.

Fannie Lou Hamer (1917 – 1977)

Black and white photo of Fannie Lou HamerFannie Lou Hamer was a leader in the civil rights movement, a champion of women’s rights and voting rights, and a community organizer. The youngest of 20 children born to a sharecropping family, she had polio as a child. Her civil rights work was difficult and dangerous, and she was often threatened and even shot at. She became disabled in 1963 after a brutal beating in a Mississippi jail left her with kidney damage, a permanent limp, and partially blind in one eye. Her voice still resonates today through the legacy she left and the quote that echoed around the world: “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.” Read more about her by clicking this link: Fannie Lou Hamer – Wikipedia

These are just four individuals out of countless others with disabilities who have made a difference. To learn more, we suggest visiting the following pages:

Disability History – Building a movement of seniors, disabled people, and allies (sdaction.org)

Black Disability History Is Black History, Too! – National Disability Institute

Highlighting African Americans with Disabilities in Honor of Black History Month 2022 – Respect Ability

Why Black History Month needs to feature the stories of the disabled (nbcnews.com)

In addition, we will be featuring stories on our Facebook page about Black individuals who are making history today! Click here to “like” our page:  The Independence Center | Facebook