ITHACA, NY – A wedding of Newfield residents was marked as a special occasion not just for the couple’s lives, but because the ceremony was performed entirely in sign language. Matilda Arnold Brown, after completing an education at the Central New York Institution for Deaf-Mutes in Rome, New York married a man who was also deaf. The uniquely communicated event was spread throughout newspapers, but there was another twist that made it even more unique —  this happened all the way back in 1896.

The wedding of Matilda and Calvin Brown was just one of many stories uncovered and compiled as part of a new compilation project by the History Center in Tompkins County. Former intern and volunteer Leanza Kopa as part of their Masters studies program at Maryville University explored various archives of local history in order to highlight deaf and hard of hearing history in Ithaca and Tompkins County. Working with the History Center’s marketing and experience coordinator Zoë Van Nostrand, she began to fill in the records on deaf and hard of hearing history.

“When Zoë first presented it to me, we had absolutely nothing on it, there was nothing in the archives, it was a complete blank page,” Kopa said. “All we had were a few names from the 1910 census, in which they were labeled as ‘deaf and dumb’. And so I kind of thought, ‘you know, I’ll find the golden story, I’m one of these people and discovering someone’s lost history, right?’.”

And while that idea did not come perfectly to fruition, Kopa says Ithaca Journal archives and other sources explored resulted in finding local stories on lip reading, sign language, hearing devices, and other topics relevant to the deaf and hard of hearing.

Highlighting National Deaf History Month which takes place from March 13 – April 15 every year, the resulting compilation of deaf and hard of hearing history was highlighted on the History Center’s website and culminated in a new type of event for the History Center where an audience gathered to hear the culmination of the research.

The inaugural CHAT, or Community History Across Tompkins, event took place the evening of April 7 at the Community Arts Partnership ArtSpace and Gallery at the History Center. The gathering of about a dozen history-curious community members began with a lecture by Kopa followed by a rearrangement into a discussion circle.

In the lecture, Kopa explored the origins of deaf stigma and community, from Artistotle to the term “deaf and dumb” and highlighted instances of deaf and hard of hearing community camaraderie and solidarity in the past. One of these was the Ithaca League for the Hard of Hearing, a group that gathered frequently and was featured in newspapers throughout the 1930s educating on the latest hearing devices, practiced lip reading, ran social functions, and worked to improve quality of life for hearing-impaired community members before its leaving the historical record around 1939. Kopa said her favorite discovery was that Tompkins County was the first county in the United States to perform a hearing test for children throughout the county in 1934 so it could be found when students needed additional treatment or assistance, which remains important to this day.

“As a hard of hearing individual myself, that was a really important thing; they didn’t discover it until I was older.” Kopa, who was about four years old at the time, said. “So having testing for children is very important for their communication, development, and their social skills, and if you catch it early on, we can adjust [for] those children and put them in classes that better suit their needs, or get them hearing aids,  hearing devices, or however the parents and child see fit.”

Leanza Kopa leads post-lecture discussion | Photo: Jay Bradley

Following the lecture, attendees shared their thoughts on what they learned from the presentation, what they found most interesting, and how it connects to their experience or what they know about deafness in Tompkins County now. An ASL interpreter was present for those hard of hearing that wished to still take part.

“I didn’t know, really any of the history that Lanza shared, so this was good to learn,” said Tompkins County Legislator Veronica Pillar, who attended the event. “I’m looking forward to like, more, you know, more stories being added to the project and more sort of connection to what the deaf and hard of hearing community here right now or what could it be, especially hearing that, you know, other places have more of a community and more supports for people”.

The new CHAT events intend to allow citizen historians and local researchers of all ages present on regional history topics in an informal setting. Van Nostrand says that this and an upcoming event are hopefully the start to a great new series of programs.

“The hope is that these are open to the public, and that anyone who really wants a space to talk through new content that they’re working on, or local history projects, has the opportunity to reach out,” said Van Nostrand. “With switching to the roundtable discussion and having people the opportunity to really engage in a more relaxed format, it’s my hope is that there’s less barriers for people who might not be who might be in school to become academics…but they’re not quite at that level yet, but still giving them an opportunity to share really valuable research and valuable work with the community.”

The research will be made into a formal archival collection in the history center’s archives and connects these past events to the present community

The online compilation also highlighted former reporting by Ithaca Week highlighting the American Sign Language Chat Ithaca (ASLCI) group, which continues to meet weekly on Tuesdays in Ithaca to practice their sign language skills since it was founded in 2015.

“For me, it was an absolute honor,” Kopa said about the experience. “For someone who is hard of hearing, I’ve noticed going into this, I really don’t know too much about, I guess you’d say my history[…]. It’s really a history that hasn’t been taught or told, and so by doing this, having an opportunity to give that history a voice again and bring it back to the forefront, that’s definitely something I’ve taken extremely seriously and have felt, you know, extreme honor and I hope that by doing this I can do the community right by it.”

Additionally, the History Center is undergoing an effort to make its content accessible to the deaf and hard of hearing by creating transcripts to oral history interviews and adding subtitles to their YouTube videos.

The History Center is looking to add to its materials on local deaf history, and those wishing to contribute materials, stories, or research to these collections are encouraged to email

The next CHAT is set to take place May 5, and will focus on early Asian residents in Tompkins County corresponding with Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. Community members and groups interested in presenting for future CHATs on local research can contact

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