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As the 19th century gave way to the 20th century, deaf people seeking to buy life insurance, including death and accident benefits, were charged exorbitantly high fees or denied coverage due to the mistaken notion that deafness posed a high risk to one’s life.
On October 20, 2017, the Gallaudet University Museum held a ceremony to unveil “We Are Equal,” an exhibition about the National Fraternal Society of the Deaf (NFSD), and how for over 100 years it overcame this discrimination and provided insurance to tens of thousands of its members.
A group of male graduates of the Michigan School for the Deaf founded the Fraternal Society of the Deaf in 1901 to offer insurance benefits. In 1907, they reorganized and became the National Fraternal Society of the Deaf, and was chartered as a fraternal insurance business under Illinois insurance laws. In 1924, NFSD was licensed to sell insurance in Canada, and continued to develop a solid reputation for its strong advocacy on behalf of deaf people, and to promote deaf people as reliable employees to businesses and industries.
By 1948 membership had grown to 10,000 deaf men. Much emphasis focused on social aspects at division meetings, banquets and conventions. In 1951, NFSD started admitting deaf women to its membership, with full voting rights. This, perhaps, encouraged an increase in NFSD’s community service and increased recreational activities.
Throughout the years, NFSD performed fraternal charitable activities, including monetary support of the Statue of Liberty Restoration Project, the World Games for the Deaf, and scholarships for deaf high school and college students.
“In addition to selling insurance policies, NFSD was committed to its focus on its members through its many divisions in the USA and Canada to support fellowship through fraternalism, helping to fight for members’ civil rights through activism, and in getting involved with major charitable causes in many cities,” said Daphne Cox, ’82, Frank B. Sullivan Memorial Fund (FBSMF) board president.
NFSD spearheaded the fight to protect the rights of deaf people to drive during the 1960s and to encourage deaf people to find gainful employment. The later half of the 1960s saw the assets of NFSD grow to over $9 million as well as an increase in competition for those dollars by insurance companies across the US and Canada.
When it realized that it had reached its zenith of providing insurance protection for over a century to its members, NFSD wound down its business, sold its operations, and ceased all home office operations in 2007. The NFSD Board of Directors met for the last time at Gallaudet University on March 6, 2010, and donated its memorabilia to the Gallaudet University Archives.
The museum exhibition concept began in 2013 at a FBSMF board meeting, where board members discussed different ideas on how to “carry on” the history of NFSD and the legacy of Frank B. Sullivan, H-’78, who served as NFSD president from 1967-1984. Meetings and discussion were held for the following three years to develop ideas of what to include in the exhibition.
The history of NFSD and its many years of success offering different kinds of services should inspire museum visitors. Deaf children, Gallaudet students, parents, and deaf adults aspiring to establish their own businesses will benefit from the exhibition’s rich information.
The exhibition opening was attended by President Roberta J. Cordano, other members of the Gallaudet community, and alumni from as far back as the 1940s, including former NFSD members.
“This exhibition is close to my heart,” said Cordano. “My family has a deep connection with the NFSD-four generations of my family bought insurance from NFSD.”
“It is hoped this interesting exhibition will ‘carry on’ the spirit of the NFSD and encourage more deaf people to work together in their own communities for common causes, now and in the future,” said Virginia “Jini” Borggaard, ’66, immediate past president of FBSMF and a former NFSD board member. “Perhaps there will be a return to the spirit of fraternalism.”
A video of the exhibition opening ceremony can be found here.
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