Helen Keller’s Village Activist Life and Legacy

Helen Keller’s Village Activist Life and Legacy

Helen Keller’s connections to New York City and Greenwich Village are numerous but perhaps less well known, as they are largely rooted in her work not as an advocate for the disabled, but in her sometimes controversial work as a suffragette, birth control advocate, antimilitarist, socialist, and an early founder of the American Civil Liberties Union along with Villager Arthur Hays (who lived at 24 East 10th Street). Keller knew and worked with great minds and leaders also associated with the Village, from W.E.B. Du Bois to the Astors to Emma Goldman and Eleanor Roosevelt. Her connections to the Village activism show a wild, dynamic life, and her writings show a love for New York which will engage every sense you’ve got.


History and Home

Helen Adams Keller, born on June 27, 1880, was an American author, political activist, and lecturer. She was the first deaf-blind person to earn a bachelor of arts degree, which she did at Harvard’s Radcliffe College in 1900.

Helen Keller graduating from Radcliffe

In 1886, Keller’s mother reached out to Alexander Graham Bell, who was working with deaf children at the time. Bell referred the family to the Perkins Institute for the Blind, which still operates in Massachusetts. It was this way that Keller met former Perkins student Anne Sullivan, herself visually impaired. It was the beginning of a 49-year-long relationship during which Sullivan evolved into Keller’s teacher and companion.

Young Helen Keller with Alexander Graham Bell and Anne Sullivan

In 1894, Keller and Sullivan moved to New York to attend the Wright-Humason School for the Deaf, and to learn from Sarah Fuller at the Horace Mann School for the Deaf. There, she worked on improving her communication skills and studied a broad range of academic subjects and languages. She described her home at 93 Seminole Avenue (subsequently 7111-112th Seminole Avenue):

We decided to make our new home in this pretty suburb of New York City. We bought a very small and odd-looking house which had been built for a German family not overburdened with a sense of the beautiful… We have planted many vines and climbing roses which we hope will make this wee house attractive, in spite of its curious architecture.

 

Downtown Activism – and Beyond

GVSHP has included Helen Keller in our Civil Rights and Social Justice Map, from her time spent in the more radical spaces of Greenwich Village In the 1910s. Polly’s Restaurant/Liberal Club/Heterodoxy Club, at 133-139 MacDougal Street, hosted Helen Keller, in addition to one of the first meetings of the founders of the NAACP and other noted feminists, socialists, and anarchists of the time. Keller was also featured in the radical magazine The Masses, with its headquarters at 91 Greenwich Avenue. The magazine supported progressive positions on issues like unionization and ending sweatshop labor, freedom of speech, racial equality, reproductive rights, and women’s suffrage.

Helen Keller Cheers an Actors Strike in New York in 1919

Helen Keller and Emma Goldman traded correspondence that indicated great mutual admiration after Goldman (who lived at 208 East 13th Street) saw Keller speak at Carnegie Hall. Goldman wrote:

I appreciate more than I can tell your wonderful spirit, especially the spirit which has enabled you to keep in touch with the great pulse of life, — the revolutionary movement. Few people I know who have no handicaps whatever, have demonstrated such a clear vision and such a deep grasp of the tremendous conflict going on in society today as you have… I am very proud of you, the more so because for twenty-five years I have been searching, searching diligently to find one truly big, brave American woman… You are among the very few.  

Keller finally met Emma Goldman at a downtown solidarity ball for the Socialist magazine The Masses, in the wake of the loss of Morris Hillquit’s run for mayor on an anti-war platform. Goldman wrote of meeting Keller: “The electric current of her vibrant fingers on my lips and her sensitized hand over mine, spoke more than mere tongue. It eliminated physical barriers and held on in the spell of her inner world.”

Keller’s correspondence included letters to and from Mark Twain, Albert Einstein, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Eleanor and Franklin D. Roosevelt, Margaret Sanger, and countless others. Her correspondences are all available through the Hellen Keller Archive.

In a 1933 letter to German students who burned her book How I Became a Socialist, she wrote: “History has taught you nothing if you think you can kill ideas.”

 

Keller’s Writing about New York

Helen Keller and companion Polly Thomson crossing the street in front of Tiffany and Co. store

Keller wrote 12 books and countless articles and letters. In many, she addressed New York City with absolutely beautiful language and imagination. In “I Go Adventuring,” from her 1929 book Midstream: My Later Life, Keller wrote:

Cut off as I am, it is inevitable that I should sometimes feel like a shadow walking in a shadowy world. When this happens I ask to be taken to New York City. Always I return home weary but I have the comforting certainty that mankind is real flesh and I myself am not a dream.

… New York has a special interest for me when it is wrapped in fog. Then it behaves very much like a blind person. I once crossed from Jersey City to Manhattan in a dense fog. The ferry-boat felt is way cautiously through the river traffic. More timid than a blind man, its horn brayed incessantly. Fog-bound, surrounded by menacing, unseen craft and dangers, it halted every now and then as a blind man halts at a crowded thoroughfare crossing, tapping his cane, tense and anxious.

… As I walk up Broadway, the people that brush past me seem always hastening toward a destination they never reach. Their motions are eager, as if they said, “We are on our way, we shall arrive in a moment.” They keep up the pace – they almost run. Each on his quiet intent, in endless procession they pass, tragic, grotesque, gay, they all sweep onward like rain falling upon leaves. I wonder where they are going. I puzzle my brain; but the mystery is never solved. Will they at last come somewhere? Will anybody be waiting for them? The march never ceases. Their feet have worn the pavements unevenly. I wish I knew where they are going… Like figures in a meaningless pageant, they pass. There are young girls laughing, loitering. They have beauty, youth, lovers. They look in the shop windows, they look at the huge winking signs; they jostle the crowds, their feet keep time to the music of their hearts. They must be going to a pleasant place. I think I should like to go where they are going.

Keller went to the top of the Empire State Building, and of her trip there, she wrote:

There was the Hudson — more like the flash of a sword-blade than a noble river. The little island of Manhattan, set like a jewel in its nest of rainbow waters, stared up into my face, and the solar system circled about my head! Why, I thought, the sun and the stars are suburbs of New York, and I never knew it!

“Beneath the surface are poetry, mysticism, and inspiration” – a view from the top of the Empire State Building

Death and Legacy

After a series of strokes, Helen died on June 1, 1968. Over 1,200 mourners attended the funeral at the National Cathedral. After her death, the play and film The Miracle Worker made widely known the story of how Keller’s teacher, Anne Sullivan, broke through the isolation imposed by a near complete lack of language, allowing young Keller to learn and communicate.

Helen Keller, experiencing flowers through smell

Keller’s birthplace in West Tuscumbia, Alabama, is now a museum, which hosts an annual “Helen Keller Day,” nationally observed on her birthday, June 27th. Keller was inducted into the Alabama Women’s Hall of Fame in 1971 and was one of twelve inaugural inductees to the Alabama Writers Hall of Fame on June 8, 2015. Helen Keller International, based in Manhattan, works to improve and give sight to those in need around the world. There are countless organizations, schools, and services for the blind in New York and around the world, that carry Keller’s name and seek to fulfill her dreams.

Helen Keller is remembered for her perseverance in overcoming incredible challenges and laying the foundations for treatment and empowerment of those living with disabilities in the United States and around the world. We remember her now, additionally, for the political sensibilities that were rooted in the challenges of her experiences of the world, which took her deep into foundational and inspirational moments of Village history.

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