Braille Monitor                          March 2020

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John Langston Gwaltney

by Peggy Chong, The Blind History Lady

From the Editor: Peggy Chong lives in Colorado, and for a long time now she has been compiling biographies of blind men and women who have routinely gone unnoticed. She has earned the nickname The Blind History Lady, and she is available for presentations in person or by phone. If you want to speak with her, she can be reached at [email protected]
. You can read more of her books at
. Here is her latest offering to the Braille Monitor:
Hello Blind History Lady Fans:

February as you know is Black History Month. In our blind family tree we have too many ancestors of color whose trail has been swept away by time. But that does not mean that we do not have black and blind ancestors to celebrate. This month’s profile is of a man who enriched the lives of many as much as they enriched his life. He was fortunate to be mentored by his hero and became a hero to those whom he mentored.

Meet John Langston Gwaltney, born September 25, 1928, in Orange, New Jersey, the son of a merchant seaman, Stanley Gwaltney, and his mother, Mabel Gwaltney.

Blind from birth, John’s mother Mabel tried everything that she could to see if there was a cure for her son’s blindness. She took him to many doctors, chiropractors, and faith healers who told her there was nothing they could do. She turned to herbal medicine, and still there was no improvement in her son’s vision.

His mother and oldest sister Lucy had the most influence over his life. Mabel relied on the community and family to help her raise her five children. Their black community was close-knit, supportive of each other through businesses and church. She led by example in teaching her son to observe, question, and seek out knowledge.

Lucy read to John from a variety of books. She taught him what a campfire was by lighting a fire in the great iron pot in the middle of their living room. She taught him how to make cheese biscuits and even perfume.

Being black was one handicap, but to be blind as well left few doors open to him. The only blind occupations that his mother thought a black man would be accepted in were music and ministry. To that end, she taught him at home from a young age. She cut out print letters and objects from cardboard to teach him to read. There was always a piano in the house, and she encouraged him to play every day.

When he was eight, she introduced him to woodcarving. Mabel handed him a knife and a stick of wood. John’s uncle was an excellent wood sculptor and took John under his wing. Family and friends introduced him to everything tactile for him to study and transform into art. This became a life-long passion for John.

When he was school age, Mabel wanted him to stay near her but at the same time to get a good education. She wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt and pleaded her son’s case. Mrs. Roosevelt, who was a proponent of the education of the disabled in their local public schools, helped John enter classes near his home.

He was hooked on geography. Two elementary teachers in particular encouraged his studies of the world. His father told him vivid stories of the many people and places he’d seen as a seaman. At night, John would go to bed dreaming of the adventures he would have when he explored for himself these far-away lands.

Each week John would listen to CBS’s School of the Air. One episode had Margaret Mead, a woman who was a famous anthropologist, as the guest. Her presentation took root in his mind, and he began to dream of becoming an anthropologist.

After graduating from high school, he enrolled at Upsala College in East Orange during the fall of 1947. He graduated with a degree in history in 1952.

With scholarships in hand and some assistance through the New Jersey Commission for the Blind, John moved to New York to study for a master’s degree in political science at the New School of Social Research. He completed his master’s in 1957. His siblings acted as readers for him when working on his vast research. His brother Robert was helpful in finding funding for some of the equipment John would need for his expeditions.

In 1956 John married Judith Jacobson. She too became a reader and supporter in his career. That first year of their marriage was John’s first field research project in Mexico. Judith went along with her husband as a research assistant.

Although he wanted to continue with school, he needed to earn a living. He secured a teaching job at the Henry George School of Social Sciences. This high school attracted students wishing to pursue careers in the social sciences. It was here that he first learned to sharpen his teaching skills.

In 1959 he enrolled at Columbia University in New York to begin his doctoral degree. Although he had excellent professors at Columbia, he learned the most from Dr. Margaret Mead, his instructor that had the greatest impact on him. Mead was the woman who had caused his thirst for anthropology. Now here she was in person, working with him and most supportive as well! She helped him plan his major research project. She did not stand in his way because of his blindness. The project was the study of blindness in the Indians who lived in the village of San Padro Yolox in southwestern Mexico. The village was not accessible by vehicle and the inhabitants spoke the ancient tongues of their Chinantec ancestors, not Spanish. The village was set in an area with rough terrain, steep hills, valleys, and drastic climate changes.

Having done his research on the area early on, he knew he needed a few more skills under his belt. He needed to walk or ride a horse to the village and other places he wanted to go. He took horseback riding lessons and had some extra strong metal canes made to take along.

His yearlong study focused on how the village maintained its social order when so many of its members were blind. With a grant from the National Institutes of Health, he had almost all of his expenses covered.

In 1966 John returned to New York and received his doctorate from Columbia in 1967. His thesis was entitled “Role of Expectations in Blindness in an Oaxaca Village.” The thesis won him the Ansley Dissertation Award in the fall of 1967.

He took a position as an instructor at the State University in Cortland, New York, where he was promoted to associate professor in 1969. In 1970, his book The Thrice Shy: Cultural Accommodations to Blindness and Other Disasters in a Mexican Community was published.

In 1971 John accepted a professorship at Syracuse University where he focused his attention on the lives of black men and women in the United States. Through interviews and research, he set out to demonstrate that there is a black culture. The culmination of his research was his book Drylongso: A Self-Portrait of Black America, published in 1981. In the book were many stories of the average black man or woman. Through his book, he hoped that the white public would start to see the average black person as just like them and not the negative images portrayed on the nightly news and media.

In 1986 he published another book entitled The Dissenters: Voices from Contemporary America. This book was a collection of interviews with revolutionaries from all walks of life. The premise was that the dissenters helped the general public stay in touch with reality. The book was nominated for a Robert F. Kennedy Book Award in 1967.

John retired from teaching in 1989. During his career, he also found time to work on projects for the Smithsonian, the New York State Creative Artist Public Services, the New York Council for the Humanities, and several national science organizations.

Much more can be learned about John in a book entitled The Second Generation of African-American Pioneers in Anthropology edited by Ira E. Harrison, Deborah Johnson-Simon, and Erica Lorraine Williams.

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