Chilmark’s deaf and signing community: A new history

A portrait of Mary Olive Hammett (1835–1912), who was a part of Chilmark’s deaf community. —Courtesy M.V. Museum

In 1785, Benjamin and Lydia Mayhew of Chilmark had a deaf son named Benjamin. Later, they had four more deaf children. By 1824, three other Chilmark households — the Smiths, Luces, and Tiltons — would also have deaf children. Though Martha’s Vineyard had a well-established deaf community in the 18th century, these parents reported that they’d never known a deaf person prior to Benjamin. It’s believed that Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language emerged after 1785, and remained isolated from other signed languages for 40 years. The first three Vineyard students to enroll at the American School for the Deaf in Hartford, Conn., in 1825, encountered the new American Sign Language, and deaf Islanders began integrating themselves into the wider New England deaf community.

On Saturday, Sept. 30, at 3 pm, Chilmark’s deaf and signing community will host “A New History,” with Justin Power, Richard Meier, and Linsey Lee. Meier is a professor of linguistics at the University of Texas at Austin, and has extensive experience in the linguistics of signed languages. Power is a postdoctoral fellow in linguistics at the University of Texas at Austin, and his research on signing communities has taken him to Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and now Martha’s Vineyard. Lee is the oral history curator at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. ASL interpretation will be provided by Audrey Ulloa and Patty Lessard.

Email for more information. The event is free, sponsored by the Friends of the Chilmark Library.