Favorites of the Past
Each month The Blind History Lady presents another of our blind ancestors who started a branch in our blind ancestor’s family tree. Each has nurtured other branches, leaves and fruit that we reap a harvest of wisdom from today. Yet, few of us know their names. Several of you have requested to hear some of the stories again. On this page I will post those stories that have received the most comments over the months.
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Below are a sample of some of the favorites from the email list that some of my fans have asked to read again.
May is a month full of so many things to celebrate. This May I want to acknowledge Mother’s Day. This mother is one I have been researching for more than six years. She did not leave a big paper trail. What she did leave is a family who loves her still and are willing to share her story. She was a blind mother who gave all for her family and gave us a song she wrote and published to remember her by.
(From the cover of the sheet music)
Words and Music by
Helen Dobbins Brown
Helen Dobbins Brown
Price 25 cents
Tis Springtime, sweet Springtime there’s joy ev’ry where;
The birds with their war-blings are teeming the air.
The flowers are blooming, in vale and on hill.
While hearts with dreams of rapture thrill.
O Springtime, tis springtime, with in ev’ry heart;
When love is awakened by Cupid’s true dart;
And yielding to kisses and armes that entwine,
Is rapt in ecstasy divine.
When Springtime is faded and summer is gone,
And Autumn has followed, the winter passed on;
Then lonely we linger, and wait but in vain,
For springtime flow’rs and songs again.
This was written by Helen Dobbins-Brown when her youngest was 17 and she was 57.
Helen Elizabeth Dobbins, born in 1880, attended the Iowa College for the Blind and then Oberlin College. She married a sighted man who fell in love with her voice before he even seen her. Sounds like a fairy tale and Helen may have even agreed that in many ways her life was a fairy tale. But, as all good fairy tales, there needs to be struggles to overcome before the happy ending. Helen had struggles in spades.
Helen married Eugene Brown, the man who had to find the woman that the beautiful voice belonged to. In nine years, the couple had eight children, Helen being over thirty when her first child was born. For a time, they homesteaded land in South Dakota, living in a sod house. A short stay in Montana and then they moved on. There were no complaints from Helen.
Although the South Dakota prairie had few close neighbors, she kept in touch with family and friends. Her blind school chums had a circulating braille letter. One would start the letter in braille, mail it to the next blind friend on the list who read the letter, wrote one of their own, sent both letters to the next friend on the list. The round robin would come back to the original friend, who read all the rest, took his original letter out, inserted a new one and sent the whole bunch on the way to the next.
Soon the Brown’s moved near Marshfield Missouri to farm land where they had to once again, build a home, barns and wooden walkways to minimize the mud and farm animal droppings from their shoes. This all took time. Helen cared for her many children, cooked, washed clothes, cared for the chickens, gathered eggs, tended a garden, put up produce for the winter, milked and kept up the house.
A farm wife back then was said not to be employed. REALLY!
Just as their house was almost finished, Eugene passed away in 1926, leaving Helen with eight children to raise. They continued on as they knew Gene would have wanted. Not once did she think of giving up her land or sending any of her children off to live with relatives or become live in help for neighboring farmers as many families with both sighted parents were forced to do as the depression grew in the country. Helen had paid off the land and homestead. They grew their own food and could live modestly and happy.
The depression effected Helen along with her neighbors. Helen re-invented her land to support the family. She built cabins along the road boarding their farm for travelers heading west for a better life. The road now was called route 66. She built a gas station. Inside the station she sold ice cream. During the migration west, Helen and the kids made a comfortable living.
The farm got electricity before the depression, another expense. But it was necessary to operate the radio and hear the news. When the new talking book player came to Missouri, Helen was glad to get hers and enjoy the many books now on record that were not in braille.
The Brown home was filled with music. They had a piano that Helen loved to play and sing along with. The children enjoyed when Mom played. They often sang along with her the old favorites, hymns and popular music. She sang in the choir of her Methodist church. Sadly, although her children did appreciate music, none of them turned out to be musicians.
All of her children finished high school. Several joined the military in the mid 1930’s before the second world war. At least one son made the military his career. Some became nurses, all lived very successful lives, thanks to their mom. Each child loved Mom and appreciated all that she had done for them. When it was time to leave the nest, each knew that Mom wanted them to spread their wings just as the birds in the spring. Helen did not expect any of her children to sacrifice themselves to stay with their “blind” mom.
After the children left the home, Helen remained on the farm for almost two decades by herself. She still grew her garden and canned for the winter. One of her daughters came out once a week on the Greyhound to bring groceries from town.
As she grew older, her closest daughter asked Helen to come live with her and her daughter in Springfield. Finally, Helen did move into Springfield with her daughter. She found an organization of other blind persons where she attended monthly meetings. Through the meetings she met good friends who also enjoyed music and would get together to play and sing with each other.
This brief sketch of Helen highlights just the love of family that she had to her parents, her husband and children. I hope you also get the impression that Helen’s love was an example and lesson that was learned and passed on generation to generation. Although she has been gone more than fifty years, her descendants remember her warmly today.
February is Black History month, time to honor the accomplishments of the too-often overlooked black Americans, especially the black and blind. The discrimination a black/blind man faced 100 years ago brings up many questions to ponder. How much was a black man valued in white society? Was a black man privileged or more respected because he was blind? Was he less of a threat? Was he more of a pet?
Today I have a story of a black, blind man, an example of a life that highlighted the paradoxical stereotypes that conflicted the racism and blatant discrimination in our country against the black and the disabled, especially in the South.
Our subject left no papers, letters or autobiography to shed light on his thoughts. Those who wrote about him during his life and indeed after, give us a prickly look at the mindset of the times they were written in. Those who have looked back at his life, try to understand and define the discrimination vs privileges he was given. I find that his life is one of contrasting extremes.
I hope after you read this, you will go onto the super highway and read more about him. Talk about him with your friends and contemporaries.
Jim Ivy aka “Blind Jim” was born in 1872, the son of a former slave. They moved to Oxford Mississippi when he was a child. Jim grew up with little education. He worked hard from his early teens. When about 20 years old, he was blinded when coal tar paint got into his eyes while helping to build the Tallahatchie River Bridge.
Jim had a strong, booming voice. After he went blind, he went to work singing in the streets and selling peanuts. White passers-by would often harass the blind beggar as they passed him. It was not until he came onto campus of Ole Miss in 1896 during a baseball game against the University of Texas State when he began cheering on the Ole Miss team with his loud booming voice. According to those at that game and as the legend proclaims, it was the loud and happy cheers of the blind peanut vendor for the home team that spurred them on from far behind to win. Blind Jim was hailed as the good luck charm for the team. He sold all of his peanuts that day and the next.
From then on, his primary sales territory was the campus. Jim proclaimed himself the Dean of Freshmen and each year, he spoke to the incoming class to, as he said, keep them out of trouble.
Jim soon became the “mascot” for the school. He let pep rallies before games. He said he attended every football game from 1896 until he retired in the 1950’s and never saw them lose. When he stepped up onto the platform of the dignitaries at home games, he sat in the middle of the stage amongst the white people. He sat in the stands with the white students during games. The only black man to do so. Yet, when he traveled with the school to attend games, he had to stay in the hotel for the colored and eat at establishments for the colored.
There were no black students on campus during Blind Jim’s lifetime. There were only black staff working as janitors or kitchen help. On a normal day at the school, Jim ate with the colored staff, not the white staff or students.
A tradition began in 1923 by a salesman from the Schwartz Tailoring Company. Jim’s clothes were tattered. The tailor who came on campus to fit the classmen for their new suit thought it was a disgrace the condition of the peanut vendor’s clothes when the students were dressed in style. The salesman gave up his commission and collected additional funds from the students to make Jim a brown suit. After that year, the Freshmen class took up a collection for a new suit for their “Dean”.
Students were appointed from the freshman class to lead “Blind Jim” around campus each year. By 1950, he had been led by three generations of families.
On more than one occasion when the school contracted with food service vendors that would exclude Blind Jim from selling his peanuts on campus, students made such a ruckus that the contracts were amended to allow Jim to sell on campus. Eventually, he even got an inside stand to sell his candy and nuts.
A column in the Ole Miss newsletter “As Blind Jim Sees It” appeared frequently. Family members believe that Jim did have input into the column. Blind Jim also liked a good joke. He helped freshmen play tricks on each other. He actively partook in jokes that challenged racial lines. There are photographs of Blind Jim, sitting at a desk in a faculty member’s office with his feet on top the desk. Many thought such photo’s were funny at that time. Had a black janitor had such a picture taken, the consequences might have been severe.
All of Jim’s lifetime, he heard of the lynching of many black men who “did not know their place”. Some were public spectacles with crowds of 500 or more where the press showed up to cover and photograph the drawn out torture and murder of young black men. One such man was L. Q. Ivy who may have been a relative of Jim’s. No one was ever arrested even though photos appeared in local papers clearly showing faces of those actively participating and those in the crowd. How did these events effect Jim’s relationship with those on campus?
During the depression, Blind Jim was endanger of losing his shanty that he had built. A local newspaper shamed the Ole Miss students and staff into helping Jim pay off the loan for his little home. The money was raised in time, but most of the funds came from one alumnus who lived out of state and read it in the newspaper from home.
When Jim died in 1955, his body was brought back to Oxford for two funerals at the Second Baptist Church. One was for the white people from the community and Ole Miss who knew the peanut vendor. This funeral lasted just over a half hour. Then the funeral for the black. Many of Jim’s extended family, church members and others from the black community attended to celebrate his life.
For us as blind people, does fears of blindness trump racial discrimination? Did Blind Jim bring about racial understanding? Was he viewed as a “Good Darkie” by the whites? Did he change the views of those on campus about the blind or the black? We can debate this all month. Indeed, those who have written about Blind Jim debate and come to diverse conclusions. If we could talk to Jim Ivy today, would he tell us he was just trying to get by the only way he could?
Let me know what you think of the life of Blind Jim.
December is the most favorite time of the year for me. There are the holiday parties, concerts, plays, greeting cards, fresh white snow, gifts and so much more. I have had a green Christmas in Hawaii, loud, rowdy, crowded festive Christmas’s in Minnesota. Some have been just Curtis and myself. Although I have my traditions, when they are not a part of my Christmas, I find that Christmas is where and what I make it. I chose to make them all merry.
I enjoy learning how others celebrated their holidays. I dug into our blind ancestor’s past. I found that again, Christmas is what we make it.
I started to research toys for the blind from the past. I found an example from 1954 where Ideal Toys had two new products that they specifically targeted as toys for blind children as well as for their sighted siblings around the holidays. I do not believe they were designed for the blind in mind, rather this was a marketing strategy for Ideal to present itself in a good light. One of the toys was a telephone that looked like a pay phone with slots on top for nickels, dimes and quarters. The second was a police car. What the two toys had that was unique for the time was a small record player that would play sounds such as with the telephone, it would ask for the number please. The police car said calling all cars.
Ideal found two blind boys in New York to be photographed with the toys and be a part of their national advertising campaign. Yet, just as my toys from Santa’s past, these were not the only toy a blind child could play with. Thanks to Ideal for thinking of us though.
Up until the turn of the 20th century, Christmas was not celebrated for days, weeks and some may say today, months on end. Most worked a normal day, maybe taking off an hour early to sit down to a feast and an exchange of gifts. Some had funds for a festive day while most did not. Rural families still had their animals to feed, milk and care for. For our blind ancestors, it was much the same. Some hardly noticed the day had come and gone if not for church services to mark Christmas.
Many of the blind men and women still sold pencils on the streets on Christmas Eve and Day. Others played their music for the holidays for the coins tossed into their cups. A blind man in Maryland went out and took his peddlers funds for Christmas Day, drank them away, returned to his rooming house and sadly killed another boarder.
Christmas cards in 1900 depicted Jesus healing the blind. For some blind folks, the card seemed to place them once again as second-class citizens.
At a Christmas celebration in 1897 in Ashville North Carolina, several young boys and men were injured when fireworks festivities got out of hand. Several were injured and at least one boy was blinded from the incident. We could focus on such times, but I choose to look at a brighter side of the holiday season.
Christmas at the schools for the blind in the mid and late 1800’s were celebrated from one end of the spectrum to another. Children rarely went home for the holidays. Some students told of the holidays as lonely, or no different from the days of study. As the schools for the blind held religious services on a daily basis, it was no different to have a special service for Christmas. Some schools held festivities where they invited the town into the school to listen to the blind children play music. It was also a great opportunity to raise funds for the schools.
In Virginia in 1873, Principal Captain C. D. McCoy of the Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind did not place a tree in the chapel that year. Rather. He converted an entire room into a wonderland for the deaf and blind students. It was carpeted in pure white and decorated with cedar and ivy that filled the air with holiday smells. There were many candles lit and placed all around the room. At the front of the room on a platform was a sleigh. Santa with a full white beard and wrapped in winter blankets sat in the sleigh to greet each child. The sleigh had a gift for each child donated by the town’s merchants. Santa spoke fluent sign language so no one was left out.
Other schools for the blind such as Iowa held special parties during Christmas week, There still were classes during this time. Many of the teachers lived at the school for the blind with their students and that included Iowa. For students through the early 20th century, Iowa kept their students busy with classwork that was suppose to be fun as well as winter sporting events and holiday parties.
During our countries wars, newspapers documented the contributions of the blind through their private businesses, schools for the blind, blind women’s clubs and homes for the blind. Everything from sewing clothing to raising funds through fundraisers were done to benefit our soldiers, especially during the holiday season.
Most of all, the blind ancestors themselves who gave of themselves to their fellow blind. One such man was Thomas Lockwood. Blinded in the Civil War, he went home and after a time of feeling sorry for himself, he began to sell books and more from door-to-door until he could open his own store. When his best buyer became blind and went home to feel sorry for himself, Thomas went over to his home at that cold season and told him to come back to work. Yes, even as a blind man. His employee reluctantly came back and found he still could do his job. A gift he never took for granted again.
Happy Holidays to all of you. May the new year bring us all we hope for.
The Blind History Lady is the winner of the 2018 Jacob Bolotin Award.
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