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BORN TOO SOON? - Willard Shorter

Black people are used to having a hard time.
I imagine that many black deaf people
think that they should have a hard time,
but there are some black people
who give themselves a hard time
by not cooperating with other people
to bring about change.



It took some persuasion to get Willard Shorter to agree to an interview. "I don't know why you want to interview me. I'm nothing special. I'm just an old black man trying to lend a hand and stay out of trouble."

But a lot of people in Washington, D.C., black and white, consumers and service providers, religious leaders, professionals and volunteers, think he is very special. Half a dozen people urged us to interview him.

Shorter carries his 65 years on a slender, slightly stooped frame with gentle dignity. His vision is obviously a bit blurred. He looks tired, but it's from physical activity, not boredom. Shorter didn't really get going until after he retired.

He has good speech and synchronizes his sign language with his speech, with a generous portion of ASL for flavoring. He gets his message across.


I was born in Washington, D.C., in 1921. I was the sixth of seven children and the only one who was deaf. I'm not sure what happened but one morning when I was nine or ten years old, I woke up and I was deaf. My father took me to the doctor but it was no use. The doctor used some kind of big words I never learned to spell, so I never knew what made me deaf. I had never had a sick day in my life except for colds and sometimes an upset stomach, although I did have an operation.

There used to be a school on Pierce Street, NW, where New York and L Street came together. It was named Douglas Simmons. I went there until I lost my hearing. Years later, when we'd pass by in the van, I'd tell people I used to go to school there. It's gone now, torn down (shakes head).

My mother died when I was young and could still hear. Later, after I became deaf, my father would write notes to me. I have three sisters and three brothers. One sister learned to fingerspell and I have some cousins who learned to fingerspell, but other than that, most of my conversations were by mouth. I could read their lips. That was when my eyes were good.

After I became deaf, I dropped out of school for a year, or maybe two, then someone had the bright idea that I needed more education. I was sent to the Maryland School for the Deaf and Blind at Overlea. That's about five miles outside Baltimore on Route 1. At that time, they had segregated schools. Right now, they use the school for blind students and all the blak deaf students go to the Maryland School for the Deaf at Frederick, so nowadays, it's different. Things have changed for the better, but it hasn't helped everyone.

When I was in school, the principal used to fuss with me all the time about my behavior, about my laziness, about everything that he thought I should do but didn't do. He was a good principal. As I look back and think about all the sermons he gave me, I find that many, if not all, the things he said were true and came true and happened exactly the way he said they would happen. He tried hard to get me to do better, but I used to tell him that I was no different than the other students. Then he would say, "You are. You came to us differently, you are different. You're better than them. You have everything. God didn't give them what he gave you." He may have been right. He was white, but he understood black people.

I was in the deaf school for about four or five years. I never learned any of the trades that most people worked at in my time. When I was young, I wasn't interested. One of the things that I can say about that school that I particularly liked, was the encouragement from the speech teachers to continue speaking. Without that, I don't think I could have continued to do as well as I'm doing now. Not that I'm doing anything special now except that I'm trying to do something that will help the Lord. Something that I think will bring people to the Lord. I don't know; I'm trying. Most people say that I have a good voice and that I can pronounce most of the words properly, but not all.

When I was in school, I made friends with a semi-blind boy. We sat for hours talking and talking and every time I would say one word wrong, he would stop me. He would tell me how to pronounce that word and he wouldn't let me go any further until I pronounced that word to his satisfaction. He is my good friend. So, I guess that was encouragement, too.

The best thing about the School for the Deaf was that my wife, Charlotte, and I were in school together. She was the most beautiful girl I ever knew and I always had an eye for beauty. I asked her if she'd marry me, so we got married just like that. We've been married 40 years, give or take a year. My wife still puts up with me and we're now living with my oldest daughter in Suitland, just across the line. We just moved in with them.

We have seven children, I think. Between Charlotte and me, I think we had seven children. I lost count. (Chuckles at his feigned forgetfulness.) The children are all living around Washington somewhere, but I don't see them that often. I have so much to do and so little time to do it, so we don't see much of each other.

Well, I received a certificate from the Maryland School for the Black Deaf and Blind and that's the only certificate I have.

After I left school, it was frustrating because I had no skills. For a year or so, I was a house man for a preacher in Baltimore. It wasn't much of a job and I went to Vocational Rehabilitation, but I didn't get any help there. Then came the war, World War II, and I got a job with the Hecht Company that lasted 37 1/2 years. In the Hecht Company, I had a variety of positions. I did something of everything. Some of the people there used to write to me, but most of the time we would just sit down and talk. My speech was good, my eyes were good and my ability to read lips then was fine.

At first I was a supply porter. Then I was a receiving clerk. Then I was a dispatcher. I was an elevator operator. I did a lot of things. When I left the Hecht Company about 10 years ago, I was a messenger. I had so many positions, I lost track. I enjoyed working at Hecht's. The people were nice but some of the bosses were mean. I had lots of fun there with those people. The reason I left the Hecht Company early was because they had merged with another company and the new company was changing a lot of things. Many of the people I had worked with for a long time were being laid off or were being encouraged to retire early. Since I met all the requirements for retirement, I decided to retire rather than be laid off. I had no skills; the job I was doing could be done by anyone. It didn't require nothing special except, you might say, honesty.

I'm not complaining. I had a steady job and some good times when I was a young man. I'd go out on the town with both deaf and hearing friends and have fun. Maybe I was a little wild but I never got arrested or in any real trouble. I have a friend who enjoys telling people about the time I was almost killed by a streetcar because I wanted to pick up my little cigar. I'll explain.

We had been to a party and it was early in the morning while we were going home. We stopped to change streetcars. Most of us were what you would call high and I was really drunk. I had a little cigar and dropped it and, as I said, I was drunk. A streetcar was coming, but I held up one hand while I fished around looking for my cigar with the other hand. Luckily, the conductor saw me. I held it [my hand] up until I picked up my cigar. It was my last cigar and all the stores were closed, too late to buy any more. I needed that cigar.

I was too drunk to remember it but if my friends say I did, I guess it's so. (Laughs.)

People say that retired persons have it easy, but I've never worked so hard in all my life. However, if I had to do it over again, I guess I would do so.

I'm a deacon in the church and deacons have a lot of responsibilities. I have a part-time job. I have to go to meetings with various organizations. I was drawn into the various organizations. For example, the D.C. Service for Independent Living. A group of us handicapped people formed that organization. We wrote the by-laws, we picked the board, we did everything. Today, I think that organization is about five years old. I don't know how they got my name, but they asked me to serve on the board. I helped write the constitution for that organization and I helped to vote on some of the things. Then there is the Black Deaf Advocates (BDA). That's a baby organization. I helped to get it started. My part in starting it was very small, but it has progressed well, like the D.C. Services for Independent Living. They both started five years ago. And there are other organizations that I go to for meetings. The Mayor's Committee on the Handicapped and Deaf Pride, Inc. There are many organizations and I go and I go and I go.

The Black Deaf Advocates will meet this summer in Chicago. Every year they have a convention. Last year they met in D.C.

Some people have asked why we want to separate ourselves into an organization like the BDA instead of working for equality in white organizations. As I heard one person say, we are trying to help ourselves. The National Association of the Deaf has invited us to participate, to be a kind of subdivision or chapter, like the state associations, but many of us don't think it is wise at this time. First, we want to see what we can do for ourselves before going a step further. We have some really good intelligent black people in the deaf community who want to help others. Like with all other organizations, there's room for improvement. We need to find out how to improve our relations with each other before taking the major step of affiliating with the NAD.

The BDA is growing. At first, there were chapters in only two cities: Washington, D.C., and Cleveland, Ohio. Now it has spread to seven or eight cities.

Black people are used to having a hard time. I imagine that many black people think that they should have a hard time, but there are some black people who give themselves a hard time by not cooperating with other people to bring about change. Some of us blacks will work hard to get a little done and then other blacks will come along and spoil all the work and we have to start over again. The person who started all the mixup is blaming someone else. So, I guess you're right that the black deaf people are still behind. Most of us think that we will always have a hard time.

Will we ever catch up? Well, it's possible. As you see, many young black deaf people are progressing smoothly. But you also see young black people who are lazy and who want people to feed them. That's not good. That's bad for the image of the black community. One time I was talking to a man and he said to me, "Being deaf is bad enough, but being black and deaf is worse." At the time he told me that, I didn't understand him. As I began working with the community and seeing how the black people are treated, I began to understand him more and more; the wisdom of what he's saying. But we can do nothing about the color of our skin; it's what's inside that counts. If a person has the Lord in his heart and he desires to improve, nothing can stop him.

I enjoy working with people. It's good to know how other people are living, what other people are hoping, what dreams we have together and what we can do to make those dreams successful.

People have their own ideas as to what they expect from other people. I would say that in order to succeed with anything, we deaf people have to work together. We need to share our opinions and have the same goals if we're going to succeed. That man who told me that deaf is bad enough but deaf and black is worse, he knew something. He was a good man. He thought, or rather, he was trying to tell me that if we want to succeed, we've got to work together. You can't do it alone. Too many cooks may spoil the broth, but if the broth is mixed with the right ingredients, it will not be spoiled no matter how you make it. That's what the deaf people need to do. Not one deaf person is any better than any other deaf person. Maybe some of them are smarter than others, but you can't succeed in anything unless you work together. If you want to be famous, you try doing it alone. If you want it to happen and you want it to spread and you want people to benefit from it, then you must work together. I won't change one word in that statement about the need for each other.

This center for senior deaf citizens happened because of Deaf Pride, Inc., and a lot of people working together. Ann Wilson, the executive director of Deaf Pride, had the bright idea that the deaf people needed a senior citizen center and since I was doing nothing, she made me the coordinator for her senior citizen project. We worked for about maybe four years looking for the money to start a center like this. Some people liked the idea but they couldn't get the money. Some churches gave a little money, but the deaf people themselves would not support it. I, as the coordinator, was ready to give up, but Ann wouldn't listen to me. She kept at it and at it until, finally, the Lord blessed her faith and we were led to the Office on the Aging by a woman who worked there. After we met that lady, everything came together and the center was born.

We opened the doors about four years ago. Before it actually came into being, I had an office at Deaf Pride on Rhode Island, NE. I'm on the board of directors and I still go over there often for meetings or just to sit down and drink coffee and talk.

We have all kinds of people who come here. Some have emotional barriers, some people have poor eyesight. Some are hard of hearing, some have speech problems. All kinds of people come here. Some are frail and some are pretty close to being frail. But all of them are welcome here if they are 55 years old and up. The office says 60, but we'll accept people 55 years old and up. The states around D.C. have their own senior citizens centers, but deaf people, if they have a way of coming here, then we'll accept them, but we can't give them full services like D.C. residents.

We go to the hospital with people, we help people file their tax returns, we help with Social Security problems. We counsel people when they have a problem. Oh, so many things. The Urban League supplies us with food and things like that. We have one full hot lunch here every day.

The church has a van that picks up the seniors and takes them home. Some of them come by themselves; they have cars or use the bus. Some live close by and can walk. It's open to anybody who wants to come and can meet the requirements. The Urban League supplies the food and the things that go with the food, like plates and paper products. The Urban League has centers all over town, but this one is for the deaf and hearing impaired.

I don't have time for a hobby, but I like to watch football, baseball and basketball games when I have the opportunity. I like to travel when I have the money. Maybe you could say that my hobby is sitting in a group of people and discussing the Bible, trying to get a new point. There's always something new in the Bible that you can learn or get a different view from. So, if you have to put down a hobby, maybe you could say it's either watching sporting events or discussing something from the Bible.

I'm not a preacher, but I have preached at several churches where the deaf worship. I often preach at our church here, Shiloh Baptist Church. I'm not an ordained minister; you could call me a lay reader.

I don't know how I got involved in church activities. All I know is that I was going to church on Sundays and acting like the Devil through the week. I knew it was wrong, but I couldn't stop. Then one day the Lord touched my heart and I saw things in a different light. From that day on, I decided that I was going to live better. At first, it was hard but as time progressed and the Lord whupping me, I progressed and succeeded in many ways. I'm not saying that I'm perfect; many people will tell you that I do things that they think aren't right for a Christian. I don't know about that, either. But one thing I do know is that I serve the Lord. His will is my will. If he shows me what He wants me to do and how He wants it done, O.K., I'll do my best.

So many people have a good education and they have this and this and this, but I have nothing. I don't even have the certificate to prove that I've been to school and that I graduated. But I'm happy in the Lord. I accept that joy in the Lord.

You say I'm rich? Well, thank you, then (beams).

Update: On April 12, 1986, Willard Shorter was honored at Gallaudet's annual Founders Day program with the Laurent Clerc Award for Outstanding Social Contributions by a Deaf Person.


Epilogue, 1999

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