‘They Were Heard: The Unique Voice of the Martha’s Vineyard Deaf Community’ at M.V. Museum


“They Were Heard: The Unique Voice of the Martha’s Vineyard Deaf Community” is a small exhibit that tells a big story about inclusiveness, which is welcome in our time, often fraught with tensions around otherness.

The exhibition, on view at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum through February 2024, demonstrates how Martha’s Vineyard, and especially the town of Chilmark, embraced the deaf community during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Individuals were treated no differently from those who could hear, and weren’t considered disabled.

“It was just natural for people to be able to talk to deaf-mutes. They were part of the community. And accepted by the community,” says Mildred Huntington in an oral history in the exhibit conducted by museum curator Linsey Lee.

In the mid-1850s, one in every 25 people in Chilmark were born deaf, compared to one in every 5,728 people nationwide. Museum curator of exhibitions Anna Barber described an outcome from this: “In pockets where there is a higher proportion of people who are deaf, it is common that they come up with their own language. Whether it was something that [English settlers] brought with them, or that was created here on the Island, we do know that there was a distinct, community-wide usage of what we refer to as Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language, which was used by deaf and hearing residents alike.”

And the Island’s sign language had wider significance. In 1817, the American School for the Deaf opened in Hartford, Conn. Within eight years, Vineyard students began attending, bringing Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language with them at a time when there was no American Sign Language (ASL). Some scholars believe that the already established Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language helped model ASL, which “is remarkable, as it’s a huge part of American and deaf history,” Barber said.

One of the museum’s striking portraits, by none other than Thomas Hart Benton, has a starring role. Coming to the Island at the invitation of his future wife, Rita, in 1920, Benton was drawn not only to the landscape but the people he encountered, including his neighbor Josie West (1861–1945). The gallery label tells viewers that West was from the last generation of deaf Chilmarkers. Stories from those who grew up with him paint a picture of a man who was an excellent farmer, woodcutter, and horse trader. He also enjoyed playing cards, and could often be found engaged in a game at the town’s combined general store and Post Office, where those who could hear and those who couldn’t regularly gathered.

In one of the oral histories, Eric Cottle recalls that the deaf were “good [at cards] because they could concentrate, no distractions … So a fellow and I went. He knew the signs and I did, so we’d cheat. We’d give each other signs … We were bad.”

A signature quilt exhibited at the museum represents what was commonly made for special occasions or gifts during the mid-1800s. They were often fashioned by a woman or group of women who would ask their friends to sign individual blocks, which would then be sewn together. Among the 13 signatures is Mary Olive Hammett (1835–1912), who was a part of Chilmark’s deaf community, and the only deaf person who contributed to this quilt.

“I think it’s really lovely to think about the quilt as a metaphor for this story,” Barber said. “[Hammett’s] piece is no different. This woman had what in modern society we might consider a disability, but here she is … The big point of this exhibit is that it provides us with a model for how society could be if we didn’t look at deafness as a disability, but just a different way of being.”

“They Were Heard: The Unique Voice of the Martha’s Vineyard Deaf Community” is on view at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum through Feb. 18, 2024. View extended oral histories about the Chilmark deaf community at bit.ly/MVM_Chilmark_Deaf_Histories.