America’s First Lady of Courage

On a trip to Alabama we were able to stop at the home where Helen Adams Keller was born and raised. Built in 1820 by Helen’s grandparents who came to Alabama from Virginia, the house is a white clapboard home designed in Virginia cottage construction. Called Ivy Green because of the English ivy that grew on one side of the house, the house was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1954.

Helen was born on June 27, 1880 and was a healthy child. At 19 months she became very ill (it is believed it was probably scarlet fever) and was left blind and deaf. Unable to communicate with the world, Helen became what was described as a “wild child.”

 Her parents, desperate for help took her to see Alexander Graham Bell when she was six. Bell connected the family with a 20-year-old teacher from the Perkins Institution for the Blind. Ann Sullivan came to live with Helen in Alabama and stayed with her from March 1887 until Ann died in 1936.

As Anne began working with Helen she recognized that her family had given no discipline to her and she need to teach Helen both obedience and love. She convinced the family to allow her to take Helen from the main house and they lived together alone in a nearby cottage. After a few weeks as Helen began to respond to Anne, they returned to the main house ad the family.

Ann began having Helen feel objects and then would spell out the word on Helen’s palm. At first it was a difficult effort but a breakthrough came when Ann kept running water over Helen’s hand and then writing the word “water” in her palm. Suddenly it was as if a light went on. Helen understood what Ann was trying to teach her.

Having read the story of how her teacher, Ann Sullivan, was able to reach her through sign language, it was so amazing to see the well where this amazing event took place.

As Helen received a way of communicating with others, she quickly showed how brilliant a mind she had. By age ten she had mastered the Braille alphabet and learned to type. She then began the difficult process of learning how to speak. By 16 she had learned how to speak so well that she went to preparatory school and then won admission to Radcliffe College in 1900 and graduated cum laude in 1904.

She became an author and published several books including The Story of My Life (1903), Optimism (1903), The World I Live In (1908), Light in My Darkness and My Religion (1927), Helen Keller’s Journal (1938), and The Open Door (1957).

She became active in promoting laws and policies to help the handicapped. When she attended the Lions Clubs International Convention in 1925 she challenged Lions to become “knights of the blind in the crusade against darkness.” Accepting the challenge the Lions have programs aimed at preventable blindness every since.

At her home there is a statute of a Lion and plaques commemorating that partnership between Keller and the Lions.

There is a garden on the grounds with a bust of Helen as well as a statute inside the house of the young girl standing at the well where Ann Sullivan was able to reach her with the word “water.”

When you consider she was blind and deaf, her achievements are even more amazing.

She fought for workers’ rights, for women’s suffrage and was an early member of the American Civil Liberties Union. She worked for over 40 years with the American Foundation for the Blind. Her speeches and efforts for the blind led to state commissions for the blind, rehabilitation centers and made education more accessible to those with vision loss.

She made multiple trips to other counties and met world leaders such as Winston Churchill, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Golda Meir. General Douglas MacArthur sent her to Japan as American’s first Goodwill Ambassador. Her appearance brought attention to the needs of Japan’s blind and disabled citizens.

A lot of credit should also go to her teacher, Ann Sullivan, who devoted her life to Helen. Her work with Helen as a child was depicted in the play The Miracle Worker. This play won the Pulitzer Prize in 1960 and was made into a motion picture in 1962.