Peggy Chong, known as the blind history lady, discusses the significance of blind individuals in history and the importance of preserving blind history. She shares stories of successful blind individuals who have made significant contributions in various fields, including politics. Peggy highlights the story of Thomas David Shaw, a blind US senator and congressman, who fought for the rights of blind people despite facing opposition. She emphasizes the need for actively preserving blind history and encourages the incorporation of blind history into educational programs. Peggy also mentions her own projects and resources for accessing blind history.
Peggy: We are so woven deeply with our history, and if we would just get out there and learn it, we might not repeat some of the same mistakes over and over again. (Chuckle.)
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 lots of other interesting stuff, with Peggy Chong, the Blind History Lady. Peggy, thanks for being here.
Peggy: Well thank you, Chris, for having me.
Chris: What are some of the favorite stories that you’ve written about?
Peggy: Everybody asks me that. And you know, my favorite story is usually the one I’m working on at the time. (Laugh.) Because I’m all excited about that one. But I think one of my favorite stories is the senator from Minnesota, Thomas David Shawl. He was a blind U.S. Senator, a blind congressman, and he’s my favorite I think because I consider him my first blind ancestor. Many people have their family tree with the root ancestor and blossoms, branches go all different directions. For me, he was the person that I had to work the hardest to find out about, because this was 1980, there was no internet to go on and, and, research. I had to do all of it by going to museums, private library collections, the public library, and doing this for months on end just for one person. So, I worked the hardest on him. Now, he might be, not be a person that I would want to admire, although in some ways, he is a person who we should admire, in that he became blind as an adult, he had a fantastic law firm making a lot of money, he lost it all trying to get his sight back, but he found politics. Uh, mostly because his friends were feeling sorry for him and, and said “Hey, I’ll, I’ll give you a couple of bucks if you, you know, go and, and stomp for me. Give this, uh, speech at this club meeting, or at this band shell, or whatever.” He had a big voice. And he did well at public speaking. And so in 1914, he ran for congress, and won. He hadn’t served in any other public office before that time. As a blind man, he did travel alone on the rails. He didn’t travel very well because there wasn’t a lot of opportunities for blinded adults in Minnesota at the time to learn any alternative techniques. So he invented it himself. A friend of his gave him a police dog as a guide, this is before the dog guide schools came to the United States, and he fought to have the ability to have his dog with him on the trains, because they wanted to put him in the baggage car all the time. The dog’s, uh, actually ended up with its own following. What he, what Thomas Shawl did was, he got a dog food company to take his dog’s likeness and put it on their dog food bags, and cans, and ads, and talk about how he leads his blind master, and eats this dog food, and so on. So the dog had a following. So when Thomas Shawl came to the train and the baggage handler, or the conductor, or the engineer said “You have to put that dog in the, in the uh, baggage car,” not only was it him saying, “Oh no, you’re not putting my dog, he is my guide, uh, in the baggage car,” you had other people going, “Oh, is that Lux? Oh, he’s such a cool dog! Oh, you can’t let him go in the baggage car!” So all of the customers, all of the riders on the train, were assisting Shawl in making sure his dog could come along. He was a man who went to congress, took a strong interest in many different things, had people read for him all the time, hired a secretary to not only travel with him, but read for him as well, and he had other readers as well. The congress actually appointed him a reader, uh, for the first few years that he was in congress. He spoke eloquently and strongly about politics. He didn’t like the new deal, he believed that there was a lot of corruption within the democratic party and, and did not hesitate to talk about that. He actually tried several different opportunities to get legislation into congress, or the senate, after he became senator in 1925, to start programs, a national program for employment for blind people. It didn’t go anywhere, mostly because of other agencies that said, “Well, you know, Senator Shawl, or Congressman Shawl, he’s a very nice man, but, you know, we are the experts on blindness. He’s just a blind man who’s, you know, kind of doing it on his own.” Uh, and, they killed his legislation. Which, kind of, by 1930, kind of killed his energy to help his fellow blind people. From about 1914 to about 1930, like I said, he tried to pass legislation, or to make the railroads allow blind people to take guide animals on the trains or buses. He tried for the employment and education legislation for blind people, but he kind of got burned. By the blind professional community, so he kind of stopped. But he is a man who left a legacy that his children, his grandchildren, his great grandchildren, and I’ve had the opportunity to interview his grandchildren, and his daughter-in-law, who kept on his drive for providing a legal action for people who are underprivileged, his sons became lawyers, his grandsons became lawyers, and they took on cases in honor of Thomas David Shawl, that they didn’t always get paid for, but that they promoted minorities, underprivileged people. Because it was the right thing to do. And that was a legacy that he left with them. His family also believes that he was murdered by the Mafia that infiltrated the democratic party, and when you look back at what happened after his death and so on, the family actually has some really strong circumstantial evidence to say that, “Yeah, he probably was intentionally run over, and that uh, that might have happened through the, Mafia who was trying to infiltrate the democratic party at the time.” So his stories have been really interesting for me. I have had the opportunity to read a book by a daughter of a reporter who was a good friend of Shawl’s, who was killed in the very same way that Shawl was, just two weeks before Shawl, and how they believe the two murders were connected. I learned a lot about Minnesota history just researching him. And that opened up my willingness to explore history. And how, I learned, it did apply to me even though I wasn’t there at the time. (Chuckle.) I just didn’t think history applied to me at the time, when I was going through classes. And now, I see how we are so woven deeply with our history, and if we would just get out there and learn it, we might not repeat some of the same mistakes over and over again.
Liz: What else, if anything, are you currently working on, and/or, what is next for the Blind History lady?
Peggy: One of the projects that I’m hoping to finish up this year is that, in Colorado here, where I live now, about five years ago, I found old records dating back to 1915. They were not in the best condition. They had been involved in a, a flood in a basement, so some of them were, were ruined, but there were a lot of them still that were able to be preserved. And I have gone through the process of preserving those records. We’ve digitized them, and thanks to Covid, some good things did come out of Covid, we were able to find well over a hundred volunteers who took those digitized files, that did not OCR, because they were handwritten, because they were type sets that no longer are recognized by, um OCR technologies, because the ink had faded into each other, because there was mold, or mil do, or folds that created, uh, errors in the reading. They retyped those files, and we are now in the final process of getting them up on the Colorado virtual library. Colorado has just started this project, again, thanks to Covid, and is taking small collections, such as the collections that we found, about the blind organizations from 1915 through now, and putting them into this digital library online so that anyone from around the world has free access to our files, but most importantly, we as blind people here in Colorado have access to our own history as blind people. And through those records, we have found that Colorado had a blind governor from 1913 to 1915, that we’ve had several blind people serve in state House and Senate, up to about 1953, and then nothing. Um, learned a lot about the culture of blind people in Colorado that differed a lot from what some of us have perceived. Uh, so that’s what I’m hoping to finish by the end of this year. What’s coming up for me is that through a grant from the Jacob Balotan award that I won at the convention of the National Federation of the Blind this past July, I will be able to travel to Washington DC library of Congress, and look at the Harmen Foundation, that primarily served black people providing grants and help to black people who wanted to be artists. From 1928 to 1932, they had a program that gave awards, and many of them … to be financial awards, to blind people from across the country. What fascinates me about this collection is that, you’re thinking about, “This must be for black, blind people.” The names that I recognize so far in what’s up on the library for congress web site is that none of them I recognize are black. They come from all over the United States. So I want to know, how did they get nominated for this award? What were the criteria for this award? These people were generally given this award earlier on in their lives, so it wasn’t the blind man from Minnesota who became the professor of agriculture who got the award. It was the blind student who wanted to go to the University of Minnesota that got the award. It wasn’t the blind woman from Colorado who had a music studio that got the award. It was the blind woman who was struggling to even have students to teach in their homes music. So, why did these people get these awards? What was the criteria? What other help did they get from the foundation? Are there bios of these people? Are there photographs of these people? There’s seventeen boxes devoted just to this project alone. I expect it will take me about two weeks to just photograph every piece of it, and then take it home for sorting, and scanning, and having some readers help me go through it, and find out what’s good information, what’s bad information, do I really need to keep those photos, you know, what, what is this all about? I am just really excited to get in there and find out, who put this award together? Why did it only go on for four years? What, what was the reason for cutting it back? Especially when the depression had just started and financial assistance, for many people, not just blind people, was an important need out in the community. So why did it stop in 1932? So that’s kind of what’s up. I still have my Blind History Lady E-mail, that I write a story every month and send out, so if you’re interested, contact me at
and if you’re looking for some of my books that I have already published, I am self published up on Smashwords, that’s all one word, smashwords, S M A S H W O R D S dot com, and if you just type in “The Blind History Lady,” I have about thirteen books up there that, uh, you can download. Now they come in a variety of formats, so I suggest that blind people, when you’re pulling down the book, choose a format like word or text, so that you don’t get a file you can’t read. ’cause there’s several of those opportunities up there on Smashwords. But they are a, books up there about a blind chemist, about a blind man from South Carolina, a white man who was instrumental in desegregating some of the educational programs in the state of South Carolina, um, lots of stories up there.
MOe: Is there anything else that you’d like to share with our listeners before we let you go?
Peggy: I would like people to realize that blind history isn’t just something fun to read. “Oh, I get that cute little E-mail from Peggy Chong every month and that’s really great.” But this is something that we should help to preserve, because our history is going away. And if you know of collections, or stories in your community, try and preserve them. So much of our stuff has gone to the trash. The North Dakoda School for the Blind trashed many of their things almost twenty years ago that could have told us a lot of information about the school, the graduates, the teachers, the same in Iowa, when the Iowa School for the Blind closed several years ago. Blind people, including the alumni association, were not allowed to go in and sort through those records, that memorabilia, ’cause they had rooms of stuff. Where it all went, who knows. But we know that a bunch of it was trashed. And like I said, the Iowa college for the Blind, the Iowa School for the Blind, was instrumental in starting so many things within the state of Iowa, but nation wide as well. And, their graduates went on to do many, many, many different types of occupations. Some of them became actually quite wealthy. So, we may have lost all of that. Because we’re not popular enough, we don’t have the biggest draw, so when museums, state agencies, libraries, are thinking of culling their collections, our stuff gets tossed in the trash because, “Oh, maybe only one or two people are gonna ever read that in a year. Where, this material over here is gonna get checked out several times a month, so we have to make more space, so let’s get rid of all this stuff.” Uh, so we need to preserve our own history because so much is being lost. And putting it on the internet, it’s easy to delete files from the internet. We need to make sure that we have got our history preserved in several different locations. Like I said, we’re working on the preservation of the Colorado history of blind people that we have found, and to do that, we are not just putting it on the Colorado virtual library, ’cause that might go away. It might become not popular after a few years. I hope not, but that we are putting it in other libraries, the digital collection in other libraries, so that if one collection goes away, the other collection is still there. We don’t use the history of the blind man who as the president of the Denver press club in 1918. We don’t lose the history of the blind man who served as the governor of the state of Colorado in 1918.
Chris: You talked about this at the beginning of the interview, but I think it bears repeating. Could you talk again about what you feel we can learn from our blind ancestors?
Peggy: Oh, there’s … I think there’s so much we can learn. First of all, that we are not the first one to ever do, or want to be, something. Uh, but, we can learn that we can take a chance, and become successful. I hope that also, schools that have programs for counselors, that have programs for social workers, um, rehabilitation programs, that they take on our history as an important part of the curriculum for new counselors, social workers, rehabilitation professionals, so when a newly blinded person, say is forty years old and president of a bank, walks into the rehabilitation counselor and says, “I really want to continue to be president of my bank,” and is met with a positive attitude. Rather than, “I don’t think there’s ever been a blind person who’s ever been president of a bank, but we have this vending program over here.” Now there’s nothing wrong with vending, but if you really want to continue being what you were, who you were, continue with that same community that you have been a part of for so long, you should be able to have that opportunity. And yes. Uh, there have been successful blind presidents of banks. Including Fred Luthy from New Mexico, who, when he died, uh, he was one of the twenty-five richest men in the state of New Mexico. His son went on to be bank president of another bank in New Mexico as well.
Chris: Well Peggy, how can people contact you again, um, or, or grab your books?
Peggy: First of all, you can always E-mail me at
theblindhistorylady at gmail.com,
“the blind history lady” is all one word, and again, I have a monthly E-mail list, and I’d be glad to add you to that. Just send me an email at
theblindhistorylady at gmail.com
and I will add you. There’s no cost to that. If you want to access my books, you can download them. They are electronically published through Smashwords,
and just do a search for “The Blind History Lady,” and they all just pop up.
Chris: And we’ll make sure to put all of that stuff into the show notes as well, so you can find it there too. We’re out of time for this week, but we want to thank you, Peggy, for being here. This was very, very interesting, and I think really important for us to know.
Peggy: Thank you very much for asking me.
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 non profit 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
or download the Penny Forward app, available on IOS and Android through the Apple App store, and the Google Playstore. 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.