Sisters become role models for students of color

"People know about black history, American history. And we know about white deaf history but we don't know much about black deaf history," said Carolyn McCaskill, Professor of Deaf Studies at Gallaudet University.

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McCaskill and her sisters grew up in Alabama, when schools were still segregated. "The white deaf schools and black deaf schools were about 10 minutes from each other, but we hardly knew one another," she said.

She is the oldest of the McCaskill sisters to attend Gallaudet. The school became integrated starting in the 1950s, but it took decades for black deaf students to feel truly welcome. In fact, Carolyn was the first black Miss Gallaudet in 1976, but she says her predecessors were treated better.

"When I became Miss Gallaudet, I never had the same opportunity. I was never able to go to the White House to meet the President. So I was disappointed with that," she said.

Her sister Angela became the first black deaf student to become a PhD at the university. And Sharell, who is not deaf, attended Gallaudet too. "I've always kind of followed in their footsteps, they've really set a high bar for me to follow them," Sharell said.

Today, all three sisters are in positions of leadership at Gallaudet, working to make sure the university is more inclusive and welcoming to all students of all backgrounds. "They come and look up to us and see we did it and see that they can," said Angela.

Sharell runs the Office of Equal Opportunity. Angela is Associate Provost for Diversity. And Caroyln is a professor of Deaf Studies, specializing in the differences between American Sign Language and Black ASL - a cultural dialect that developed in segregated deaf schools.

Carolyn said, "Like one phrase: girl, please! You may not find that in the white deaf community." There is now a movement to preserve and validate Black ASL, partly because of Carolyn's research.

Since student protests erupted in 2006 over the controversial selection of a new university president and some allegations of racism, the sisters believe the school has evolved and has become more inclusive. Carolyn said, "I think it helped us take a real look at where we needed to make some changes so for me I think it was positive."

Five years later, 30% of the student body is made up of people of color, making the McCaskill sisters role models with an important message to share.

Sharell said, "Students can do anything. There's no limits if you assert yourself and believe in yourself and strive in your goals."

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