Saturday, February 28, 2015

This Week in Texas Methodist History   March 1

Helen Keller Speaks to Packed House at Southwestern University, March 6, 1915

Exactly one hundred years ago this week Helen Keller (1880-1968), arguably the most famous woman in America, and her tutor, Anne Sullivan Macy, spoke to a packed house at Southwestern University.  The reporter for the campus newspaper, the Megaphone, estimated the crowd at about 1500.  

Professor Moore introduced Mrs. Macy who told the large audience of how she was hired as tutor for the young girl who lost both sight and hearing when still a child of eighteen months.  The story of how she taught Helen is well-known even today, mainly through the 1962 motion picture, the Miracle Worker.  

That movie provides a stirring inspirational drama, but does little to convey how famous Helen Keller was in 1915.   She was born in 1880, suffered the attack of scarlet fever as a child, and eventually was admitted to Radcliffe where she became the first person without sight or hearing to earn a bachelor’s degree.  While she was still in college, she published an autobiography The Story of My Life (1903).  That was followed in 1908 by The World I Live In.  Her publications made her famous, and introduced her to the celebrity world—including Mark Twain, Charlie Chaplin, Alexander Graham Bell, and other progressive era authors and intellectuals.  She also met every president from Grover Cleveland to Lyndon Johnson.

Anne Sullivan Macy then introduced Helen Keller.  The Megaphone reporter turned rhapsodic  

. . .there was a radiant expression upon her face and an inner emotion about her person which seemed to go from her and touch the heart of everyone present. . 
The reporter acknowledged that Ms. Keller’s speech was difficult to understand without looking at her, but she delivered her speech Happiness. 

She also demonstrated how she read lips by placing one finger on the speaker’s lips and her thumb on the larynx. Little children were invited on the stage, and she bent to kiss them.  

Most of us know Helen Keller’s story of overcoming adversity and are inspired by it, but the other side of Helen Keller’s life is all but lost to everyone but historians.  In fact, she was one of the most radical progressive reformers of an era full of reformers.  She was a socialist, a pacifist, a founder of the American Civil Liberties Union, a fighter for birth control, women’s votes, a member of the International Workers of the World (Wobblies).  She used her celebrity to advance these causes as well as less political issues such as blindness and disability concerns.    

Her 1915 appearance was during one of her most active political periods.  As a member of the Socialist Party, she supported Eugene Debs against Woodrow Wilson (Wilson opposed votes for women.). In 1914-15 some of the most violent anti-labor union suppression in our nation’s history was occurring in Rocky Mountain mining districts.  Revolution in Mexico and World War I in Europe were strengthening her commitment to pacifism. 
If she brought any of these issues up in her presentation at Southwestern on March 6, 1915, they did not make it into the Megaphone account.  

My grandfather was a student at Southwestern in 1915.    I cannot know for sure, but it is likely that he was in the audience of 1500 that Saturday night one hundred years ago. 


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