Braille Monitor                                                June 2013

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Edna Schmidt: A Federation Fundraiser Goes to Washington

by Anna Kresmer

From the Editor: The following is another in our series of historical documents in the Jacobus tenBroek Library:

Since the founding of the National Federation of the Blind in 1940, fundraising has been the engine which makes the Federation run. The charitable donations from members, corporations, and the general public allow the NFB to advocate for blind people in countless ways, from providing legal and legislative representation in the courts and Congress to creating innovative education programs like NFB Youth Slam. As with most nonprofit organizations, the quest for funding has always been a part of the work of the NFB, and over the years Federationists have come up with some creative ways to accomplish this vital task. But what strategies did the fledgling Federation employ to raise the money needed to put its ambitious programs into action in the 1940s?

Meet Edna Schmidt (1898 to 1986), who, for the first decade of the NFB's existence, was arguably the public face of the organization. A blind native of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Schmidt was the principal fundraiser for the Federation, as well as one of its first paid employees. For thousands of sighted people throughout the United States, she was their first encounter with the power and potential of the organized blind movement. Appointed by the executive committee and the convention in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1942, Schmidt was granted the title of public relations director. Constantly traveling the country long before the days of the Interstate Highway System, she spent the next ten years presenting the ideals and goals of the Federation to the numerous labor unions and professional associations that once dotted the American landscape.

According to a 1955 interview for the Regional Oral History Office at the University of California, NFB founder Jacobus tenBroek said that the reason for approaching the unions was straightforward: "Our appeal to them was based on the proposition that we have similar problems and similar organizations; that we are a people's movement and they are a people's movement; that we are organized on a federation basis, local, state, national; they are organized along the same principles. For much of our history they were a disadvantaged part of the population—unequal opportunities and rights—as we are. So that in effect a very good case could be made out which had a great deal of appeal for labor unions."

Schmidt made her presentations nightly by making direct personal solicitations for money and political support at union meetings. This support usually took the form of letter-writing campaigns in favor of legislation engineered or endorsed by the NFB. In the midst of World War II and the lingering recovery from the Great Depression, Schmidt was able to bring in roughly $16,000 to $18,000 a year. Because of her efforts the NFB was able to contribute to the travel expenses of volunteer organizers, mail informational bulletins to its growing membership, and send representatives to state conventions. These funds also paid for the NFB's legislative supplement in the American Brotherhood for the Blind's All Story Braille Magazine, later taken over by the Federation and renamed the Braille Monitor.

But perhaps most important, with this income the NFB was able to send its own legislative representatives to Washington, DC, for a portion of the congressional session each year. Long before the establishment of the NFB Washington office in 1957 and the first March on Washington in 1973 (now known as NFB Washington Seminar), this was the primary way in which the Federation accomplished one of its central goals: lobbying the federal government for favorable legislation for blind Americans.

In 1952, after years spent mostly on the road, Schmidt was no longer able to continue in this way. She took a position as the first blind resource teacher for blind students in the Milwaukee Public Schools and continued her fundraising work by mail. However, this proved less successful than face-to-face solicitation and was eventually replaced by other fundraising methods. Schmidt was later a director of the Badger Home for the Blind in Wisconsin and became an active member of the American Council of the Blind. She passed away at the age of 88.

Schmidt got to enjoy the fruits of her fundraising labors on the part of the NFB in the spring of 1945, when she was sent to represent the legislative interests of the Federation during the first session of the seventy-ninth United States Congress. Arriving in Washington exactly two days before the death of President Franklin Roosevelt, Schmidt had her work cut out for her and a lot to report back to the NFB leadership. Here's what she wrote to Dr. tenBroek a few days after her arrival:

3800 Military Road, N.W.
Washington 15, D.C.

April 14, 1945

Dear Dr. tenBroek:

This is the continuation of my report. I have been down on the Hill every day making such contacts as I could. I have only talked with four senators. In a number of cases where it seemed to be impossible to see the senators, I have talked with their secretaries. That, of course, isn't as satisfactory; but if the secretaries are interested, it will no doubt help some. Everyone is very polite and courteous. In my last report I mentioned that I had talked with LaFollette. The other three senators are Bushfield of South Dakota, Butler of Pennsylvania, and Magnuson of Washington. I have called at the offices of all of the members of the Finance Committee and then started on the others. Next week I intend to spend a great deal of time in the House. The senators with whom I have talked seem to be sympathetic toward our cause. They realize the need of improvement in the Social Security. Bushfield says he thinks a blind person should be permitted to retain all of his earnings and get a pension besides. They all seem to feel that the states should have the authority to determine the needs of their blind. None of them gave me much time, and Bushfield and Butler were rather reserved. I liked Magnuson best of the three. He says they have improved the pension system in his state. He was very informal. He said he knew all about this business of caseworkers snooping around back alleys, etc. When I spoke to him, he had just come from having lunch with Truman after the president's death. He said that Truman had told him that, as soon as he gets some of these war situations cleared up, he would go into the Social Security. All of these senators said they would study the bills when they came up in the Senate.

I have explained our program to secretaries of the following senators: McMahon, Gerry, Lucas, Guffey, Bailey, Ball, Kilgore, Green, Fulbright, Mead. In most cases the secretaries took notes on what I told them. Every one of them says his senator is sympathetic toward our cause and will do all he can for us. In several instances the American Foundation was mentioned. One secretary told me she had sent contributions to the Foundation. I felt like telling her we needed the money too, and she might as well make out a check to us. Senator Mead of New York is ill. Senator Bailey's secretary told me that there was no use in my explaining our program to him because, by the time this legislation got to the Senate, both he and the senator would forget everything I told him. And in a way this would seem to me to be the case with all of them. They have so much on their minds, and sometimes I wonder just how much good I can really do here. That is what I think when I get depressed, and one cannot help but get depressed when it is so hard to see the senators. But when I hear the experience others have, I feel a little more encouraged because they seem to have the same difficulties that I do.

Naturally the death of the president has upset everybody here. I couldn't do as much yesterday as I would ordinarily have done. I left the Hill about three o'clock. Many of the senators had cancelled all appointments for the remainder of the week. There was only a short session of the Senate yesterday noon, a sort of memorial service for the president. I attended that session. I probably will not be able to do much on Monday. Truman is going to address Congress Monday noon. If I can get in, I will go to that session.

I called Fenton's office yesterday. He is not in town but made an appointment to see him next week. I thought possibly he might help me to get an interview with Green. Today I had a letter from UAW [United Auto Workers] in Detroit, Mr. Addes. He sent me the name of their legislative representative. I called that office this morning, but this being Saturday, not many were in the office. They suggested that I call Monday morning for an appointment Monday afternoon.

From the contacts I have made, I feel that we have a good chance to get some favorable action when this thing gets before Congress.

The Labor Building, where the railroad unions have their offices, is very close to the new House. I have been over there several times. Those representatives over there are so cordial to me. They told me I could drop in any time I wanted to. I ran into one of them in the Capitol the other day. He stopped and talked and was very friendly.

I realize that my reports are rather detailed, but you might as well know just how things are going here.

About getting the two employment bills introduced into the Senate, I don't think I will have much success because the senators are so hard to see. That is something that I will have to work on next week and Senators Pepper and Myers return to Washington. Will write again in a few days.

Edna H. Schmidt

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