Susan Burch is a professor of American studies and a former director of the Center for the Comparative Study of Race and Ethnicity at Middlebury College. Her research and teaching interests focus on deafness, disability, race, and gender and sexuality in late nineteenth- and twentieth-century U.S. history. She is the author of Signs of Resistance: American Deaf Cultural History, 1900 to 1942 (2002) and a coauthor, with Hannah Joyner, of Unspeakable: The Story of Junius Wilson (2007). She has coedited anthologies including Women and Deafness: Double Visions (2006), Deaf and Disability Studies: Interdisciplinary Perspectives (2010), and Disability Histories (2014). She also served as editor-in-chief of The Encyclopedia of American Disability History (2009). She has received an American Council of Learned Societies' Fellowship, a National Archives regional residency fellowship, National Endowment for the Humanities and Mellon Foundation grants, and a Fulbright Scholars award. Her most recent work, Committed: Remembering Native Kinship in and beyond Institutions (2021) centers on peoples' experiences inside and outside the Canton Asylum, a federal psychiatric institution created specifically to detain American Indians.
This talk draw on the life story of Junius Wilson (1908-2001), an African American deaf man who grew up in the Jim Crow South and attended a segregated deaf school. At age sixteen he was falsely accused of a crime and when his deafness was misjudged as “lunacy” he was incarcerated in an institution for the insane where he was surgically castrated and held for 76 years, including six in the criminal insane ward. Wilson was never declared insane by a medical professional or found guilty of any criminal charges. Junius Wilson’s lived experiences are "remarkable" in both their power and their particulars. But we should not dismiss his history as merely an isolated story, irrelevant to our understanding of the past more generally. Fundamentally, what happened to Wilson highlights the extent of what a society based on hierarchy and violence can do to its most vulnerable members. His story allows us to explore the depth of racism and disability discrimination, the intersection of Jim Crow policies and the eugenics movement, the impact of institutionalization, the changing meanings of mental health and social work across the twentieth century, and the unexpected sources of strength that emerged in the face of such a terrible tragedy. His story invites us to consider what and who remains in the margins of our historical work and why. Through this work, Burch explores entangled issues of race, gender, deaf identity, institutionalization, eugenics, and civil rights. Rememoring deaf and disabled people like Junius Wilson into our worlds (scholarly, community, personal), Burch will show, fundamentally transforms our understandings of who and where we are and have been.