Blindness is something that is not new. Come with us as we hear some of the stories of our blind community from The Blind History Lady.
Peggy: Some of the people that I really admire in my research are those who faced hard times, and came out of that.
Chris: This is the Penny Forward podcast, a show about blind people building bright futures one penny at a time. I’m Chris Peterson, …
Liz: I’m Liz Bottner, …
MOe: I’m MOe Carpenter, …
Chris: And today, we are going to be talking about blind people who built bright futures one penny at a time, and did other interesting stuff, with Peggy Chong, the Blind History Lady. Peggy, thanks for being here.
Peggy: Well thank you, Chris, for having me.
Chris: Tell us about yourself, would you?
Peggy: I am a blind person, who grew up in a family of several blind people. My mother and a few of my sisters are also blind. I grew up in the blind community, and I went to public school. I enjoyed doing a lot of the things that most teenagers did growing up, camping, swimming, all that. I got married young, had a family, and I got involved in the National Federation of the Blind, where I started my interest in blind history. I was asked to go through the files of the Home for the Blind in Minnesota that was closing. It was a large building that had up to like twenty-four residents at a time, and in the basement were file cabinets, boxes, cartons, of artifacts, and files of anything related to what the Home for the Blind, the Minnesota state organization of the Blind, or several of its residents had done over about seventy years. And, I must say, I threw out a lot of that stuff, which I regret to this very day, but I started to pay attention to a few of the letters that were in the files, and one of them caught my attention. This is my first letter, you might say, that I got really excited about. It was from one of the members of the board to another member of the board, and they were talking about meeting with our blind congressman. I had no idea there had been a blind congressman at that time, and of course, they didn’t put that name in the letter. So, I put the letter aside because it was one of the many things I wasn’t supposed to keep. We had to get everything down to one file cabinet. So I put that aside, and my curiosity got the better of me, and I had to find out who that blind congressman was. And that started me on my quest for learning about what I now call our Blind Ancestors.
Liz: That quest that you mentioned that that particular event helped kind of launch, how has that expanded? And what does that look like?
Peggy: The home for the blind in Minnesota closed in 1980. And my curiosity was just for my sake. I wanted to know what the secret to being a successful blind person was. I knew the blind rug weavers, the blind piano tuners, the blind door to door salesmen, the blind janitors, when I was growing up in the sixties, and I was somewhat ashamed of them because they didn’t have, you know, the fanciest houses. In the eighties, I was becoming more acquainted with blind lawyers, and educators, and businessmen, who had nice houses in the nicer neighborhoods, and I kind of put those blind rug weavers to the bottom of, of the successful list. What I didn’t realize at the time, and it wasn’t till I really got into my research, about, uh, 2000, was that those blind rug weavers, those blind door to door salesmen, although they weren’t making a lot of money, they were self-supporting. They weren’t on the welfare rolls of the state. And I call them the welfare rolls ’cause that’s what they were called at the time. They made enough money to purchase their own home, even if it was just a trailer. They raised their children, they sent them to college, and that’s being successful. Even if it wasn’t a great deal of treasure, it was enough treasure for them to really enhance their lives, and the lives of their children. Uh, so over the years, I collected a lot of this material, started to study, look for patterns, and what really surprised me was that there wasn’t a pattern. That the success depended on what was inside. What a blind person had for their own stamina, if you will, because students who went to the schools for the blind, some of them did very well when they graduated, some of them did not. People who went blind later in life, some of them did very well, some of them did not. People who went blind later in life, some had training, and of those, some did very well, some did not. Those who went blind later in life, and did not have training, some did very well, and some did not. So the secret to being a successful blind person is not necessarily the best training, the best education, the best opportunities, the best checkbook, the best family connections, although, all of them can help, and they’re all a tool. It’s how you make the best use of your tools in your toolbox. And that means you’ve got to have that internal energy to say, “You know what, I’m not gonna settle for this,” and take a chance. There are stories of blind people who faced going to the poor farm, and poor farms, in many cases, were probably worse than going to jail. Or they could take a chance and start something. And that’s usually the fear of going to the poor farm, or the poor house, was the energy they needed to try something that maybe scared the dickens out of them. But, it brought them to places where they could really enhance their skills, build their own lives, eventually own their own homes, some of the people that I really admire in my research are those who faced hard times, and came out of that. One of the women that I studied, because I knew her as an older adult, I knew her as a quiet grandma. I did not realize the life struggles she had gone through. I wish she had shared, because she had a wonderful story. A very sad story, but it was a wonderful story as well. Her name was Marie. She lived in Minnesota. She went to the school for the blind. She had two other siblings, who also went to the school for the blind. Her and her sisters, including three sighted sisters, were all orphaned at a young age. As the summers came up, her and her sisters were either sent to a relative, or in Marie’s case, she went to orphanages for the summer. In one, uh, foster home she was sent to during the summer, she ended up, at about the age of twelve or thirteen, working as summer help for a family who ran a resort. She didn’t get paid for it. They, the family, were paid for the foster care that they provided while Marie worked. She went to work one summer in Minneapolis between her junior and senior year for a disabled woman in a wheelchair who ran a printing shop. And the woman paid Marie for her work during the summer, and said “Hey, Marie, why don’t you come and stay with me, and I will put you to work and you can work in my shop.” Well, she wanted to finish high school. But she did go up to Minneapolis, and went to public school, graduating about 1940 from high school. So this gives you a bit of a time frame. Now she married her high school sweetheart from the school for the blind, and he turned out to be a bit of a jerk. She had a couple of children, he was gone a lot, he spent the money, she often had to make excuses to the rent man, had to borrow money, she often did work for other people in the apartment houses or rooming houses, so that they would help give her money to maybe make some of the, the rent money or buy groceries. She ended up living in an abandoned gas station with three children, all young, and she was selling things on the street to try and keep everything together. Her husband came back for one last time, and she got pregnant again. Now she had gone to the welfare organizations in the Minneapolis area and asked for assistance, and they said, “Well, you can go back to your husband, or you can give up your children. But as a blind woman with young children like that and no means of support, uh, we don’t think it’s fair that you subject your children to such living conditions, and we can’t give you a lot of money to take care of them. She said absolutely no, she was not giving up her children, so she didn’t take welfare. When her last child was born, the children became very ill, and turned out one of them had polio, ended up in the hospital, and she was desperate. She went to an alderman at the city, and he put out a plea through the press. “Please help Marie.” And within a few weeks, they had gathered enough money to purchase a plot of land, and build her and her children a house. One of her children did not get out of the hospital for a year. Can you imagine that? But she was able to make enough money to keep the family together. The house was given to her, and later on she married a very nice man, another blind man, and he owned his own business, he adopted her four children, I always thought they were his children. I had no idea that those were not his children. They went and had this beautiful life together, raised these loving children, had this beautiful house, cared for it themselves, … the struggles that she went through, the struggles as a blind woman that she went through with the welfare departments in several states, um, she tried following her husband to Texas at one point, and to Nebraska, by the time, uh, her second child was young, he ended up going to prison for a while, she got pregnant of course while, just before he went to prison and the third child was born. All these trials and tribulations that she had, her family, her sisters, she had such a strong family connection with her sisters. And I just thought she had the perfect life. And had I known the troubles that she went through, the strength that that woman had, I think it would have inspired a lot of other young women my age to really take greater care, and appreciate what we had. And understand why a lot of the older generation really was afraid of welfare getting into your life. Was concerned about taking too much assistance from the government, because the government would then have too much of a roll in your life. Uh, those types of stories, I think, would have helped to balance out some of my personal philosophy at that time.
MOe: You mentioned that you started off in Minnesota. Has your research gone to other states? Is it coast to coast? Is it worldwide? Can you share a little bit about more about how much you, or how far your research has gone?
Peggy: You know, I pretty much stuck to Minnesota for quite a while. When I moved to Iowa, about 2002, I decided it was time to do my family tree. And I started to learn how to be a genealogist. That’s when I started to, Hey. What about taking that same philosophy of research to some of these blind people that I only had a news clipping about? Or a little article from a magazine? They were just mentioned in a book. I went out and started to do the research, I guess it was about 2000 that I started all of this. Ancestry.com was just getting started. It didn’t have all the stuff on it that you had today. I had to go out and really dig in the dirt if you will. I looked at people in Iowa, Iowa had a really rich history for blind people, with the school starting in the 1850’s. The school included people who started a home for the blind, which didn’t work out very well. When the state took it over, they hired all these sighted people, paid the sighted people well, the blind people ended up actually, when they left the home for the blind, owing the state money. That school and its alumni helped close down that home for the blind that they started. They started another home for blind women, around 1915. The Iowa College for the Blind, as it became known, was also the birth place of the American Foundation for the Blind. It has a really rich history. So there was a lot of people willing to give me stories. And I thought, “Well, I wonder about this other state.” And, “What happened to these people when they left the school for the blind?” “Oh, they moved to Arizona. They moved to Alabama.” And so I’d start to poke around in those states as well. I got more involved in starting my Blind History Lady project when I moved to New Mexico. By this time I had started to write up the stories, and make little stories for myself. I wrote for Dialog Magazine until its demise, and I was the history columnist. I started my E-mail, monthly E-mail program, and if people are interested in receiving a story from me once a month, they can contact me at
and I will be glad to add you to my E-mail list. One of the people I had last year on my email was Marie that I just told you about. I continue to build on my collection of stories. I have tens of thousands of names, and a little bit here and a little bit there. I do not focus on the famous blind people. I don’t write about Helen Keller, Fanny Crosby, Ronny Milsap, I tend to focus on our blind ancestors, those who have passed already, and in the United States. Because there’s a lot of our blind ancestors within the United States that have a story to tell. I get leads, “Oh, you should research this blind painter from France. Or this blind shoe maker from Austria.” And those are all great. Those are great stories, and I might keep a little bit about them, but our blind ancestors here in the United States have so much to teach us. The traditions that the schools for the blind had, you would think would be somewhat the same. However, in the 1800’s, early 1900’s, the schools for the blind may have had piano tuning courses, but the focuses could be so different. And the results so different, of what happened to the graduates. One of the things that has amazed me about my research, looking at the schools for the blind, the agencies for the blind, the broom shops, the industrial homes, and so on, they, a lot of them had annual reports that they put out. In the annual reports, they would talk about their board of directors, their funders, uh, special friends of the organization that may have helped them get property, once in a while, they may talk about a graduate who has done well, but surprisingly, they did not. I am amazed that because they were a program for the benefit of blind people, that they didn’t promote their graduates very much. Early biennial reports of some of the schools for the blind did do that. They were proud of their graduates, often brought them back as guest speakers for graduation, special occasions, some of the schools would often ask their graduates to take on a young student as an apprentice. Or teach them the ropes for a few weeks, or maybe for a summer. And they were mentioned in the annual reports, but sadly, those reports are few and far between. So, it excites me when I find these stories from newspaper articles, or family histories that people have sent me, or that I find on various genealogy web sites. It excites me to learn about them. When I write my stories, I want to talk about who they were, the skills that they did or did not have, the drive that they had, or didn’t have until a particular incident happened, I want to tell how they processed and got to become successful. And when I say “successful,” I don’t necessarily mean that they became, you know, the, the … one of the richest men in the state, although there have been blind people who have been one of the richest men in the state, but that they were successful in that they lived a comfortable, good life, that they contributed to their community, that they contributed to the growth of their family, the support of their family, that doesn’t always mean that they had a great job, but that they took initiative to make sure that they contributed to their family, and to the reputation of their family, to the joy of their family. Especially blind women did not always have a chance to go out and have a career. The careers open to blind women were piano teacher, in some cases, seamstress, lace makers, but by enlarge, that was it. Where blind men could be door to door salesmen, they could work in factories, piano tuning, shoe repair, shoe making, and this, we’re talking the eighteen, early nineteen hundreds. Women didn’t always have that chance. But, a lot of blind women stayed with other family members, helped to raise the children, participated in their church becoming the choir mistress, or they particularly had an interest in maybe the schools that their family members attended, and became a theater director. A volunteer for the school’s extracurricular activities. Or they married someone and helped them in their business. Which a lot of sighted women did the same thing, unpaid work for their, their sighted husband, blind women did the same.
Liz: In terms of doing your research, and finding your stories, was there one particular unique source that stood out to you in terms of being able to find information that you weren’t expecting to be able to find with that particular source?
Peggy: Every resource has a unique facet. I started off with reports from schools for the blind, and, like I said, was surprised at how little there was. Yet, I was surprised at the types of careers that the schools pursued. For example, shoe making. I did not think of that as a blind occupation taught to blind people in a school for the blind. Many of the schools that were schools for the deaf and blind had that for the deaf school children, but not necessarily for the blind, although some did. And some were very successful at it. When I look at newspaper articles, I use several different web sites that are searchable, and accessible, and that’s not always the case, uh, for some sites. I try to look for words that I think will bring me stories about blind people. When I look in the newspapers, I had to learn about the words used to describe blind people at that point in time. You don’t want to necessarily look for “the blind lawyer.” Sometimes you want to put in a search term of “poor sightless.” Or “blind boy.” Rather than a blind man. Because they were a blind boy. If they were 16, or if they were 66, they were still a blind boy. So, I was surprised at the terminologies. I really didn’t enjoy history in school, which some people find surprising. So, I had a lot to learn about history, as I started this whole process. That was one of the surprises that I learned when starting to attend genealogy classes. Is that you can’t just assume the values of today when searching in the past. You have to learn the values of the past. You have to know what was important at that particular time, and, at that particular location. Uh, for example, if you were looking for blind farmers in northwestern Iowa in 1900, you probably wouldn’t find them listed as a blind farmer, at that point in time. You would have to know their name to find them. Because the farmers, the newspapers, the ideas of the people at that time were not to call out your disability. So it would be hard to find them in northwestern Iowa, even though that was a heavily farming community. But if you were going down south newspapers, and looking in some of the southern papers, “blind farmer” might bring you up a whole list of articles. So, I had to be inventive in how to look for people in the Northwest Iowa. I was fortunate that that’s where my family was from, and I heard lots of stories about the farming community, and the processes, the culture of the times that they lived in, and was able to take some of that knowledge that I knew from my family into learning how to search for blind people at the time. An example would be, the churches all had these events at people’s homes, and you would look to see who served tea, and who was at the guest book, and they would always honor those people in the newspaper. When I was looking for blind people in the section, I would look in the society areas, and I would look in the county reports, or the city reports of the government meetings that were held. And I would look to see who supported whom, who gave a gift to whom, who had a special tea to raise money for Poor So-and-so, in the county records, you would look for discussions about providing assistance to So-and-so because they could not meet their monthly bills. And you would look more for the occupation. You would see, “John Smith, the broom maker from Spencer.” Or, “Mary Jones, the rug weaver from George Iowa.” And look at their occupations, and then I would go and see, “Okay, can I find them in census documents, especially 1910, that gives you a clue, because they kept really good records about blind people in the 1910 documents. If it’s a man, and they were within military age, the World War I records documented all of the blind people that had to register to serve in the war. And so then you can go in and you can find the information about that person, when they were born, where they were born, um, their occupation. So, you have to, I had to be kind of creative in where I was looking and how I was looking for information, in different parts of the country, using the same resource tools. Um, ancestry.com has been a, a great resource tool for me in finding stories of, “my blind grandfather. My blind grandmother.” Now, you can’t just put in “blind” as a search term because you get “blind dates,” “blinding snow,” all sorts of stories. Uh, so you have to be a little more creative in how you do your searches. The early part of my research time, when things weren’t so much online, and still, a lot of our stuff about blind people is not online. Because I was a member of a genealogy society, I found it easy to reach out to other genealogy societies who had people like me, who were trying to learn how to find documents. And I would say, “Hey, you know what, um, I am from Iowa, I am from New Mexico, and I really would like to see if there’s these documents in City Hall. In the library. In the history museum. In the county courthouse, about So-and-so.” And I’d give them the name, an approximate time frame to look through material, or approximate date of an event, if they were going to a library to look something up, I would try and give them enough information to look through newspapers to see if they could find the obit, or the anniversary celebration I was looking for, or the special anniversary or occasion of the celebration of a school for the blind, or a broom shop, or what have you. And, usually with a donation, a financial donation, it was easy to get people to go and do that for me. It was helpful to know how to use a reader. The skills of having to learn how to use a reader when I was in school came in very handy, because when I was talking with some of the other folks in my local genealogical society, they were saying, “Yeah, you know, I … it took me a long time to finally get this person to understand what I was looking for.” I didn’t have that problem because I would say to the person either via E-mail or over the phone, “I am looking for this, this is the person I’m looking for, here’s a little bit of their background, maybe you know something I don’t know, here’s the time frame, where they worked, or who they married, or who their parents were, or who their child was,” and I would often get back interesting stuff. I have had librarians, where I’d call up a public library, and ask them for a particular news article that I believe is in a newspaper, that might be referenced in a magazine article, that might be referenced in a book, and have them go look for it. Once in awhile, I get a librarian who is really intrigued by the story that they read, and you have to usually pay for a librarian to do research for you, but once in a while, a librarian gets really excited, and the next thing I know, I’m seeing E-mails from that librarian. “Hey, I just thought you were … would be interested in this.” And they’d send me a scanned article, or a picture, or a newspaper clipping that they had run across. Or they would send me a contact of someone whose grandfather, or, or great aunt was blind. “You might want to talk to them about their relative who did X Y Z in our town.” So, uh, being creative, and learning about the history. Taking time to read the side articles, in the newspapers, along with the article about the blind person that I am researching often helped me to learn about the community, about the beliefs, the processes, the programs, the culture of that community, that might have helped to contribute to an easier time for that person to become mayor of that town. Or, was a community that did not allow any opportunities for people to get a job, and that’s why they had to leave the community. They didn’t get approved for two or three months of community assistance, uh, public welfare, ’cause that was usually voted on by the county or the city. Not state or federal at, at the time. And that’s why they left, and went off to another state, ended up becoming a professor at some university.
Brynn: That’s all the time we have for today, but we’ll be back in two weeks with Part 2 of our interview with Peggy Chong, The Blind History Lady, on the Penny Forward podcast.
Chris: The Penny Forward podcast is produced by Chris Peterson and Liz Bottner, with assistance from MOe Carpenter. Audio editing and post production is provided by Brynn Lee at
transcription is provided by Anne Verduin, and the music is composed and performed by Andre Louis. Penny Forward is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to help blind people navigate the complicated landscape of personal finance through education, mentoring, and mutual support. Through our guest, monthly, and yearly memberships, we offer self paced online financial education courses, weekly members only group chats, monthly member meet-ups, of course, this podcast, which you can get early access to if you join as a guest monthly or yearly member, and access to one on one financial counseling provided by blind financial counselors. And we’re working on so much more. To learn more about us, visit our web site at www.pennyforward.com
or download the Penny Forward app, available on IOS and Android, through the Apple App store, and the Google play store. Now, for all of us in the Penny Forward community, I’m Chris Peterson, …
Liz: I’m Liz Bottner, …
MOe: I’m MOe Carpenter, …
Chris: And have a great week and thank you for listening.