by Peggy Chong
From the Editor: Peggy Chong continues to change what we once thought we knew about the history of blind people. Certainly there were many who experienced lives far bleaker than they might have been, but Peggy makes it clear that this is not the whole story about blind people functioning in the world as they found it. Here is her latest offering:
This month I give you a short story about the full life of a blind Alabamian who left a legacy lasting over one hundred years after his death. The story is important not just because he was a remarkable blind person, but because he was a remarkable man.
John Stackhouse Laverty was born May 11, 1856, in Parkesburg, Pennsylvania. He was blinded at age thirteen while playing with a gun cap on a stove. Being a middle child in a well-to-do family of six children, John had ample support to stay safe at home with his parents and participate only in church and civic activities with other members of his family. But that was not the Laverty way.
John attended the Pennsylvania School for the Blind, where he finished his education in six years. He learned to read and write in Braille, learned to play piano, and excelled in math. He graduated in 1876 at the top of his class and began looking for employment.
John was hired by the Louisiana Institution for the Education of the Blind at Baton Rouge in 1877. An unsettled, new school, it took students between the ages of eight and thirty-five, focusing on grammar-school-level education and training for self-support. He married and began his family in Louisiana.
Six years later, John took a position as teacher of music at the school for the white blind in Talladega in 1883. Within a few years, he was being paid more than fifty dollars a month, more than some of the other male teachers. He introduced courses in piano tuning for the boys. Several of his students earned a comfortable living after graduating as tuners.
The first orchestra and band began under his supervision. He introduced classes in stringed instruments besides the piano to round out the band and orchestra, teaching the children to listen and cooperate musically as individuals and in a group.
For a blind man, John did well financially. Still, he set up his own piano tuning business on the side, no matter where he moved. His tuning business helped expand the tuning department at his schools. He played piano for many community functions. He invested in the Laverty Ore Banks Company and a local railroad in Talladega, but investing was not one of his greatest assets.
John opened a music store in Talladega in September of 1888. The store carried musical instruments such as pianos, guitars, and mandolins. Inventory also included sheet music, music boxes, sewing machines, and even “talking machines” or record players as they would later be known. Until the store made enough significant income to live on, he continued to teach at the school for the blind for twenty-one years, until 1904.
His home was his early music studio where he taught local individuals in cornet and other instruments. One of his first students was Lee De Forest, the father of radio. After John opened the store, classes were primarily given there. When a blind student of John’s showed promise as a piano tuner, he hired him in his stores. One student lasted for forty-five years.
All his children were musical. John taught them to play instruments at a young age. In 1895, John organized the Laverty band and orchestra that played for every political, community, and church activity around Talladega. Sixteen sighted members of the band shared equally in the program with solo opportunities. Among the members were his children. A favorite piece he wrote that was played by the band was the Margaretta Polka that he wrote in honor of his last child.
Their home attracted out-of-town visitors to Talladega. Fred Emerson Brooks, the poet, visited Talladega in 1895, was hosted at the Laverty home, and entertained with his poetry and humorous stories.
John opened a second store in Gadsden in 1905. Sons Charles and Robert joined the management of the Gadsden store. John traveled by himself to places as far away as New York to purchase pianos and organs regularly.
In 1913, John entered the Democratic primary to represent the Talladega area in the House of Representatives. The cause of the untrained, adult blind was his primary reason for running for office. Several men sought the Democratic nomination, but John won the appointment with his plea for the education of the adult blind. Well known in the community as an efficient and generous businessman, he secured the support and votes of the sighted.
John made it clear from the start that he had no financial interest, nor would he ever have, in the program his legislation created. His teaching days were over. Although his skills and honesty as an administrator were never in question, he refused to profit from the legislation.
John’s first bill was introduced within the first months of his service. It provided funding for services for a training school for the adult blind. The bill went through many compromises as it passed through the house and senate. He championed the cause of the lack of training for the adult blind by getting stories in local papers expressing the need for such schools. John sent typed copies of his speeches to editors across the state and of course Montgomery, the state capitol. News editors wrote editorials in support of a training school for the adult blind.
In a speech John wrote to one of his fellow legislators and ended up sending to all members of the legislature, the governor, and many newspapers, “The blind of Alabama do not ask for pity: they implore you to help them to become self-reliant by helping to give them an opportunity in the struggle of life.”
The bill passed and was targeted for white blind adults only. John himself did not exclude the “colored blind” but may have been confronted with the death of the bill if a provision for whites only was not included. He would not live to see the day when colored blind men and women of Alabama received rehabilitation services.
John served in the legislature from 1915 to 1919. Committee assignments included the powerful Appropriations Committee and Education Committee. His wife accompanied him to the capitol and served as his reader. John typed up his own speeches and letters to be presented to his sighted companions, his constituents, and the media. He died August 2, 1921, after a short illness at his summer home. He left his business to his sons, who passed it on and on for five generations. A great-granddaughter of John’s still gives presentations on her great-grandfather John Laverty and family, highlighting their contribution to Alabama.