Braille Monitor                                                 February 2012

(back) (contents) (next)

Featured Book from the Jacobus tenBroek Library

From the Editor: With some regularity we spotlight books in the tenBroek Library. Here is Librarian Ed Morman's review of a book in our collection:

A History of the California Council of the Blind, 1934-1969, by Perry Sundquist
(Los Angeles: the Council, 1969)

Reviewed by Ed Morman

Perry SundquistRegular readers of the tenBroek Library’s contributions to the Braille Monitor are familiar with the two Perrys of California. In April 2011, we wrote about Hugh Buckingham’s biography of Newel Perry, Blind Educator, and last month we delved into the NFB archives for some correspondence between Kenneth Jernigan and Perry Sundquist. Both Newel Perry and Perry Sundquist were crucial to the development of the blind civil rights movement. In this eighty-page inkprint booklet, Perry Sundquist places Newel Perry at the center of the early years of the organized blind in California. The California Council of the Blind—now the NFB of California—was in many ways the incubator of the National Federation of the Blind, and it is fitting that Federationists should study its history.

The first major political success of the organized blind in California was a 1928 initiative campaign. The initiative—which the California electorate approved in a popular vote of almost five to one—resulted in an amendment to the state constitution that granted the legislature power to provide aid to needy blind people. This success in turn challenged leaders of the blind to craft a modern, comprehensive law on aid to the blind that would have three main objectives: (1) to relieve the blind of “the distress of poverty,” (2) to create greater economic opportunity for the blind, and (3) to encourage blind Californians to seek independence and self-support. Passed and signed by the governor in 1929, this law was, above all, the product of the organizing efforts of Newel Perry, who since 1912 had been director of advanced studies at the California School for the Blind.

Perry had himself attended the school and had helped organize the California Alumni Association of Self-Supporting Blind in 1898. He left California to earn a PhD in mathematics from the University of Munich and then spent ten years tutoring college students in New York City, looking for work as a college professor (but failing to land a position because of prejudice against the blind). While in New York, Perry was instrumental in getting the state legislature to allot funds for blind college students to hire readers, and, after returning to California, he put much effort into raising money to help his students attend college. He also traveled throughout the state organizing local groups of the blind.

Perry’s familiarity with the legislative process, his mentoring of the brightest students at the school for the blind, and his tireless organizing work all paid off when he learned of plans to establish a statewide council on blindness. A group of agency officials had been discussing the formation of such an association, intending to grant the organized blind a minority voice within it. The organizers little expected that the founding meeting, to be held in Fresno, in October 1934, would draw a greater number of blind than sighted people. Perry, however, managed to bring sixteen representatives of blind groups; only thirteen sighted people attended.

The meeting organizers had prepared a constitution for the group, but—thanks especially to the efforts of Perry’s protégé, the 23-year-old college student Jacobus tenBroek —the assembly voted it down. Finally adopted was a document that created a federation of twenty-five organizations of the blind and agencies for the blind. Newel Perry was elected president, and J. Robert Atkinson—the blind founder of the Braille Institute—corresponding secretary. TenBroek was elected to the executive committee, and Perry Sundquist became second vice president. Interestingly, there is no report of rancor resulting from the surprise action by the blind leaders.

At the time of the CCB’s founding meeting, Sundquist was secretary of the Los Angeles Club of Adult Blind. Over the course of his subsequent association with the organized blind, he had leadership positions in the American Brotherhood for the Blind (now the American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults) and the NFB, in addition to the California affiliate of the NFB. Trained in political science, education, and social work, in 1935 Sundquist conducted a study on the economic status of the blind for the California Department of Education. He later became chief of the Division for the Blind of the state Department of Welfare, retiring from that position shortly before he took on the task of compiling this booklet.

This thirty-fifth-anniversary history of the California Council is best used as a reference guide to the early days of the organized blind in the U.S., since much that Newel Perry and his followers accomplished in California set the stage for national developments. We recommend its use as a reference guide because, truth be told, it is no fun to read straight through. Sundquist evidently patched the document together quickly, and, though he served admirably for almost ten years as Monitor editor, this booklet reflects neither elegant writing nor rigorous editing.

Nonetheless this is an important piece of writing. In his discussions of the efforts of Newel Perry and Jacobus tenBroek, Sundquist demonstrates that the philosophy of the NFB was alive and well in California in the early decades of the last century. As a state official with great responsibility, Sundquist understood the importance of the Council in envisioning, creating, and implementing many of the programs he managed. His discussion of the history of and rationale for aid to the blind is worth reading, despite the occasionally difficult prose, because it reminds us that—as much work as the organized blind still face—things were much worse when the CCB and the NFB were young. Sundquist also addresses federal matters, notably the Social Security Act and its early amendments, and the necessity of a national organization to deal with issues that were becoming national. Once aid to the blind became established nationally, the NFB and its affiliates had to fight against provisions that made independence more difficult to attain.

After a long section on aid to the blind, Sundquist turns to the drive for jobs. He was not interested merely in the economic well-being of the blind. He writes:

The opportunity to engage in meaningful activity represents many things—job satisfaction, economic security, group association, community and family respect, and a priceless sense of contribution to society.

Conversely, lack of opportunity to engage in such meaningful activity creates individual, family, and social problems. Chiefly, it denies to the individual the chance to participate in the main channels of life and thus robs him of the very zest for living.

The accomplishments of the CCB during its first thirty-five years, as detailed by Sundquist, demonstrate the importance to the organized blind of the “zest for living.” From the opportunity to own and manage vending stands to white cane safety and all it means for independence; from the education of blind children to support of blind college students; from library service to protection of the rights of sheltered shop workers—all these and more were the concerns of the Council.

One of the most important programs discussed by Sundquist was the transformation of the State Home for the Blind into the Orientation Center for the Adult Blind. Kenneth Jernigan spent five years on the faculty of the center in Oakland before leaving to direct the Iowa Commission for the Blind. Jernigan no doubt learned much during his time in California, but, even before he moved to the West Coast, he had a good idea of what a training center for the adult blind should be and do. Those who learned from Jernigan during his California days remember him fondly as a model, a teacher, and an administrator.

Sundquist’s history of the CCB is valuable also because it provides a look at the early days of the leading NFB affiliate of the time from the standpoint of a less well-known participant in those events. For example, Sundquist devotes several pages to a political campaign of the late 1940s. TenBroek—by then president of the NFB, professor at the University of California, and a young father—successfully managed the CCB’s effort to repeal a recent amendment to the state constitution. The organized blind were concerned that the new provisions lumped aid to the blind in with “aid to the aged and aid to other disadvantaged groups.” By educating the public about the capabilities of blind people, the CCB eliminated a measure that “put the potentially productive blind in the category of helpless recipients of support.”

Sundquist also provides capsule biographies of CCB leaders, although the tone and quality of these biographical sketches are inconsistent. For Newel Perry he relies on tenBroek's eulogy of their beloved mentor (available online at <http://www.nfb.org/images/nfb/Publications/speeches/ NewellPerryTeacherOfYouthLeaderOfMen.html>. The sketches of some of those still living appear to have been prepared by the subjects themselves. For others, notably Robert Campbell, Sundquist drew on his own knowledge.

Sundquist’s discussion of Robert Campbell must have been particularly difficult for him. Campbell was also one of “Dr. Perry’s boys,” having attended the California School for the Blind with Sundquist and tenBroek. He had been their roommate and remained close friends with them until the NFB’s Civil War.

As Sundquist describes the events in California, in a section called “Division and Resurgence,” it was Newel Perry’s reluctance to step down as president that precipitated the troubles in California. When in 1953, at age 80, Dr. Perry finally acceded, it was conditional on Campbell—who had already succeeded him as director of advanced studies at the School for the Blind—taking his place in the CCB. Campbell was elected president and stayed in that position until he resigned under pressure in 1959.

Sundquist attributes the difficulties faced by the CCB during Campbell’s presidency to the contradiction Campbell faced by simultaneously being an employee of a state agency and the leader of an organization devoted to fighting for the rights of the blind. He put it this way:

It was almost inevitable that the internal strife in the National Federation should lead to bitter dissension within the California Council of the Blind—and so it did. The seeds of discord were sown in December 1953 when Dr. Perry insisted on Robert Campbell as his successor to the presidency of the Council. Many members resented this dictation, irrespective of the individual chosen. Also, Campbell was an employee of a State agency for the blind and yet was expected as Council President to represent and vigorously espouse the views of the blind, which were often at odds with those of the agencies. This unenviable role of trying to serve two masters proved impossible in the long run. During this time the Council had fallen on weakness, which resulted in part from Bob’s position in [the] State Department of Education. Bob was a person of sincerity and with courage. It was too much, however, to expect him to put his job on the line in dealing with his superiors as Council president.

The California affiliate recovered from the strains of Campbell’s presidency—although it lost one quarter of its chapters as a result of the split. With Russell Kletzing, James McGinnis, and Anthony “Tony” Mannino successively serving as president between 1959 and 1969, the CCB regained its voice and much of its strength.

More than forty years have passed since the California affiliate published Sundquist’s history, and much has happened in the meantime. For one thing the California affiliate gave up the name “California Council of the Blind” in 1971, as tenBroek had suggested, and became “National Federation of the Blind of California.” Later, for several years around 1980, the NFB affiliate had to fight for its name and ultimately retained it after a legal battle. The organization now calling itself the California Council of the Blind—an affiliate of the American Council of the Blind—claims to date back to that 1934 meeting in Fresno, but there is no question that continuity really rests with the NFB of California. A short summary of the entire history of the affiliate is on the website of the NFB of California: <http://sixdots.org/about/history/>.

We have not been able to locate accessible copies of this booklet (or of Sundquist’s companion work Aid to the Blind in California: Fifty Years of Program Development, 1919 – 1969) and would deeply appreciate any information about whether Braille copies exist. It is our plan to digitize both publications and make them available in accessible format during 2012.

For now the audio version of Sundquist’s eulogy of Newel Perry, delivered at the 1961 NFB National Convention, is available online. The talk, in Sundquist’s voice, includes a delightful description of the two Perrys’ first encounter with each other on November 11, 1918. The University of California and the Internet Archive have also put online an accessible transcript of an interview with Sundquist and his coworker Lillian McClure. For links to either of these, look up Sundquist as an author in THE BLIND CAT, our online library catalog: <www.nfb.org/theblindcat>.

(back) (contents) (next)