Braille Monitor                                                 January 2013

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An Appeal from the Past

by Anna Kresmer

From the Editor: The following is another in our series of historical documents in the Jacobus tenBroek Library collection.

Since November of 2010 the Braille Monitor has featured a series of special items from the archives at the Jacobus tenBroek Library. These have included documents as varied as Thurgood Marshall’s 1953 letter to NFB founder Jacobus tenBroek, Federationist Margaret Warren’s newsy letter to current President Marc Maurer in 1981, and most recently an endearing letter from a beloved guide dog in 1976 to past President Kenneth Jernigan. Each of these items provides a unique look into the history of the NFB, and each survives to this day because someone sent them to the archives. As a result the tenBroek Library is one of the leading resources on the organized blind movement in twentieth-century America and is undeniably the best resource on the history of the National Federation of the Blind.

Unfortunately, there are some gaps in our records. For decades the NFB Records Center, which was the predecessor of the archives here at the tenBroek Library, dutifully preserved the interactions between the national headquarters and NFB affiliates across the country. However, no effort was made systematically to collect the records that document the grassroots activities of affiliates and chapters until 2009. As a result pieces of state- and chapter-level history have been lost. But with your help we can begin to fill in some of the missing pieces.

The archives at the Jacobus tenBroek Library are committed to preserving the history of the NFB at all levels. Whether your files are from 1955 or 2010, if you have newsletters, announcements, meeting minutes, or significant correspondence that documents the history of your state affiliate or chapter, we ask that you contribute them to the NFB institutional records. Help us to ensure that the legacy of the Federation is well documented for future generations. Please contact NFB Archivist Anna Kresmer at <akresmer@nfb.org> or call (410) 659-9314, ext. 2310, for more information.

The NFB has always been conscious of its place in history, so gathering and preserving its records and those of its affiliates is nothing new. This awareness is evident in Dr. tenBroek’s plea to NFB state historians in this letter from 1955. In hopes of publishing a comprehensive history of the NFB and the organized blind movement in time for the twentieth anniversary convention in 1960, he turned to Federationists for help. Sadly, the late 1950s proved to be a turbulent time for the NFB, and this book was not published, but the importance of tenBroek’s request is still applicable today. Here is what he wrote:

THE NATIONAL FEDERATION OF THE BLIND

Office of the President
March 28, 1955
2652 Shasta Road
Berkeley 8, California

CIRCULAR LETTER

TO ALL STATE HISTORIANS

Dear Friend:

The following is intended to indicate the general scope of the state history and the character of data and materials to be collected for use in connection with the preparation of an over-all history of the National Federation of the Blind.

At this early stage of the development of the project, it is of course impossible to tell just how the state histories will be incorporated into the final work. It is believed therefore that we should prepare as complete state histories as possible and, after that has been done and other work on the over-all history has been completed, to determine how much state history to include and how to integrate it into the total work.

Each state historian should therefore:

  1. Collect, write up, and send to me general data about the state affiliate. When was it formed? What were then and what are now its purposes and activities? What changes has it undergone during the years of its existence? What programs has it carried out? Who have been the leading personalities in it?
  2. What has been the history of the development of public and private programs for the blind in your state? Indicate what those public and private programs are, where they have been instituted, what their progress has been, what their objectives are, and the extent to which they have achieved those objectives. In the case of public programs indicate the statutes upon which they are based and the important changes made in those statutes from time to time. Mark out the role of the state affiliate in relationship to those public and private programs and agencies. Which ones did they fight? Which ones did they agree with? Which ones came into existence as a result of their efforts? What impact have they had?
  3. Obviously, information bearing upon the subjects listed under 1 and 2 can be gathered from a number of sources. Some of it exists within your own knowledge and experience. Some of it can be collected by personal conversations with other blind persons in the movement or other persons in the community. Still more of it, however, must be dug out of the documentary record. It is essential that you verify all information to the greatest possible extent. Dig through the files of the affiliate. Secure access to letters and correspondence of persons who have engaged in the movement or in other programs over the years. If there are several versions of various events, set them all down, giving your evaluation of each and the source of your information about them.
  4. As you collect this information, write it down, and send it to me along with as many supporting documents as you can lay your hands on. I will go over the material you sent me from time to time and write you suggesting areas that need verification, gaps that need filling, and additional lines of inquiry that should be pursued.

It is expected that this work will take a good deal of time. We have therefore set as a general target date for the production of the final work the twentieth anniversary of the National Federation of the Blind, namely 1960. It is necessary, however, to begin collection of data immediately if we are to do a thorough-going and solid historical job.

The project has exciting possibilities. If successfully carried out, it will be not only the history of the blind movement in this country but the history of blindness in recent times in this country. It will reveal in ways which cannot be refuted the character of the democratic impulse which lies behind the claims of self-determination by the blind and which supports our organizations. It will be a public educational instrument which can be drawn upon to meet all sorts of Federation needs. It will above all tell the story of the accomplishments which the blind themselves have wrought.

Cordially yours,
Jacobus tenBroek
President

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