Tuscumbia’s Helen Keller: An Enduring Legacy

By Sarah J. Schmidt

Mark your calendar for Tuscumbia’s annual Helen Keller Festival, held this year on June 20 to 26, and learn more about a remarkable Alabamian.

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Southerners searching for inspiration need look no further than the charming north Alabama town of Tuscumbia, site of Helen Keller’s birthplace and host of the annual celebration that honors her amazing life.

Born in 1880 at a small clapboard house that still stands in Tuscumbia today, Helen Keller suffered a severe illness shortly after birth that left her blind and deaf. By the age of six, she was an angry, unmanageable child who refused discipline or teaching until her desperate parents found Anne Sullivan, a patient and caring instructor referred by Alexander Graham Bell.

Sullivan made countless attempts to reach Keller, only to be thwarted by Keller’s violent outbursts. Finally, Sullivan scored a breakthrough in the spring of 1887 as she ran cool water over Keller’s hands from the family’s outdoor well pump. The water calmed young Helen, giving Sullivan a much-needed teachable moment.

As Sullivan pumped the water, she tapped out the braille symbols for W-A-T-E-R into the palm of Keller’s hand. She repeated the exercise over and over until suddenly Keller understood the word. By nightfall, Sullivan taught Keller 30 more words, and by the end of that summer, Keller’s vocabulary exploded.

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Helen Keller went on to master the Braille language and learned to speak well enough to communicate publicly, later finishing preparatory school and graduating cum laude from Radcliffe College in 1904. With Anne Sullivan at her side, Helen Keller became a renowned public activist, speaking in more than 25 countries and advocating for better living conditions for the blind and deaf worldwide.

The amazing work that Sullivan performed in opening Keller’s dark world is chronicled in the timeless story, “The Miracle Worker,” written for stage by Walter Gibson. The Tony award winning play was adapted for screen in 1962, starring Anne Bancroft as Sullivan and Patty Duke as Keller. Both won Oscars for their performances.

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The stage version of the story is still a community theatre favorite. The Helen Keller Foundation also hosts performances during weekends from June through mid-July every summer on the grounds of Helen Keller’s birthplace in Tuscumbia. Popular show dates are Friday and Saturday nights during Tuscumbia’s Helen Keller Festival, held annually during June. This year’s festival takes place June 20 to 26.

Helen Keller Festival

Now in its 38th year, the festival honors the legacy of hope that Helen Keller brought to disabled people around the world, says Jenny Brooks, chairman of the Helen Keller Festival Board of Directors, an all-volunteer group that puts in countless hours to organize and host the festival every year. A parade, street festival, antique car show and a full line-up of bands playing everything from blues to boogie highlight this year’s festival.

Last year’s festival drew more than 50,000 people for the week-long celebration. This year promises even larger crowds, Brooks predicts, because of the all-star lineup of nightly entertainment. But Brooks says what really keeps people coming back is the enduring message that Helen Keller’s life represents. “It’s Helen Keller’s perseverance that seems to carry over from generation to generation,” Brooks says. “A lot of people can relate to her through their own difficult circumstances and challenges. If we take a page from her playbook and apply it to our own lives, it’s that she gives us the hope to overcome challenges.”

Helen Keller Birthplace: Ivy Green

Helen Keller’s birthplace, known as Ivy Green, sits beneath centuries old magnolias and boxwoods, surrounded by English ivy (which gives the home its name). Docents guide visitors through each room of the house, appointed with period furnishings and many of the Keller family’s original possessions, including Helen’s original Braille typewriter.

One room on the ground floor has also been converted into a small museum featuring family photographs and personal mementos that offer insight into Helen Keller’s life. Upstairs, visitors peek into her childhood bedroom. In the backyard, the original water pump is still in place, marking the spot where the “miracle” took place.

The tour also includes the family’s kitchen building (detached from the main house) and a separate cottage, which Anne Sullivan converted into a tidy school room. Since 1954, the Ivy Green estate and grounds have been meticulously preserved and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Helen Keller dedicated more than 40 years of her life to public service with the American Foundation for the Blind as an advocate for the rights of people with disabilities. She died in 1968, but her legacy lives on at Tuscumbia’s Ivy Green and in the annual festival that this north Alabama town hosts to celebrate her life.

More information about the festival is available here. For tours of Ivy Green and information about performances of “The Miracle Worker,” click here.

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