Searching for Laurent Clerc

A few weeks ago I was presenting at a conference in Mystic, Connecticut, so I took the opportunity to drive up to Hartford for the day and follow the Hartford Deaf History trail.  I am an enthusiastic student of Deaf history, so I was excited to see the places I had read about for myself.

(For those who may not know: Hartford, Connecticut is where the first permanent school for the deaf was founded in 1817 and where American Sign Language was born.  Read more at the American School for the Deaf’s website.)

First stop on my tour: Laurent Clerc’s grave.  Laurent Clerc, the brilliant Frenchman who gave up the worldly joys of Paris to come to America with Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet and establish a school for deaf children.  Laurent Clerc, the first Deaf teacher in the United States.  Laurent Clerc, without whom ASL and Deaf Culture as we know it surely would not have been possible.

I arrived at Hartford’s Spring Grove cemetery on an unseasonably cold and blustery April day, to find the office closed and no clues to point to where the great man’s grave was in the huge cemetery.  No worries, I thought, the internet will help.

Except that every description of Clerc’s burial place lists the cemetery and nothing else.  Fortunately, there was one picture of the gravesite that happened to show the fence beyond – a useful clue!  Armed with that photo and feeling rather like Dan and Amy Cahill in The 39 Clues, I set off to hunt down the spot. Half an hour later, I found it.


Now, being a librarian by training, I have to leave some breadcrumbs for other folks.  So here it is:

How to Find Laurent Clerc’s Grave

1) Enter Spring Grove Cemetery at 8035 Main Street, Hartford, CT.  (It is next to a church and the entrance is set back from the street a bit, so easy to miss!)

2) Go down the center road once you get inside the cemetery.

3) Veer to the right.

4) When you see the “Section 1” sign, pull over and park:


5) Look to your right. You will see a tree and a monument.  The fenced-in area behind the tall monument is the Clerc family plot:


Unfortunately you cannot approach the grave very closely because the Clerc plot is entirely fenced-in.  The graves of Clerc and his wife Eliza have been given new headstones in recent years, but there are other old stones in the plot that are impossible to read from the other side of the fence.

When I finally found it, I stood outside the fence and signed a message of thanks to Laurent Clerc for all he had done and all the lives he had impacted.  I know that ASL has changed a lot since his time, but I like to think that, wherever he is, he understood.


Celebrating a Great Partnership: Clerc-Gallaudet Week is December 3-9

At certain times throughout history, fate has brought together people who were able to do great things together, their collaborations pushing them individually to great heights.  Lennon and McCartney.  Jobs and Wozniak.  Twain and Tesla.

Perhaps lesser-known to many hearing Americans is a partnership that happened by fortunate accident but would go on to shape an educational system, a language, and eventually, an entire culture: that of Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet and Laurent Clerc, founders of the first permanent school for the deaf in the United States.

clercLaurent Clerc, born December 26, 1785 in the south of France, became deaf as a young child and spent his early years uneducated, with little to no communication with his hearing family members.  Finally, when he was twelve years old, an uncle convinced Clerc’s parents to send him to a well-known school for the deaf in Paris, the first public school for the deaf in the world.  At the school, Clerc quickly learned French Sign Language, reading, writing, philosophy, mathematics and more – so quickly that after just eight years of schooling he became a tutor and was hired as a teacher one year later.   In 1815, Clerc was selected to travel to England with the head of the Paris school for a series of demonstrations of his teaching methods – a trip that would change history.

That’s because in attendance at one of those demonstrations was thgallaudet-portraitThomas Hopkins Gallaudet, a hearing man and minister from Hartford, Connecticut who had travelled to England to research deaf education methods for a proposed school for the deaf in the United States.  He had originally come to study at the Braidwood School, an institution that focused exclusively on speech and speechreading, but had been frustrated by the Braidwood family’s refusal to share their methods.  When he attended the presentation by the French educators, Gallaudet knew that he had found what he needed for the American school.  The Frenchmen invited Gallaudet back to Paris with them.

Gallaudet soon ran out of money, and recognized that he still had not learned enough to start the school on his own.  He entreated Laurent Clerc to return to the United States with him, and Clerc, moved by the plight of the uneducated deaf children in America, agreed, abandoning the cultured halls of Paris for the wilds of the New World.

On their fifty-two day sea voyage across the Atlantic, Clerc taught Gallaudet French Sign Language, and Gallaudet taught Clerc to read and write English.  In 1817, they opened the first permanent school for the deaf in Hartford, Connecticut.  Some students came from the nearby island of Martha’s Vineyard, a community with its own established deaf community and sign language.  Most students came from hearing families where they had eked out a few “home signs”, gestures to communicate enough to get by.  But all found themselves in a rich community where Clerc’s French Sign Language blended with the signs brought by his students, forming early American Sign Language and the roots of American Deaf Culture as we know it today.

Clerc and Gallaudet went on to establish or help establish schools for the deaf in many other states, and both devoted their lives to deaf education.  In December 1974, DC Public Library established Clerc-Gallaudet Week as a way of honoring Clerc and Gallaudet’s birthdays (December 26, 1785 and December 10, 1787, respectively) and promoting library awareness in the deaf community and deaf awareness in the library community.

To learn more about Clerc and Gallaudet, check out these links: