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Black History Month: Honoring Black Leaders Who Were Blind or Visually Impaired

by Carolann Verrioli

Today, to celebrate Black History Month, let’s learn about three amazing Black individuals who had visual impairments. Whether they were advocating for Civil rights or for the rights of those who have visual impairments and other physical disabilities, these women devoted themselves to making a difference in this world for the better. 

Harriet Tubman

Black and white photo of Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman was born in 1819 in Dorchester County, Maryland. Born into slavery, she was raised under terrible conditions. As an adolescent, she suffered a head injury that left her visually impaired. Despite all of the social and physical barriers, she became one of the most famous people in American history.

Harriet escaped enslavement in 1849, and relocated to Philadelphia. There, she joined the Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Society and became a "conductor" of the Underground Railroad. During her ten years working the Underground Railroad, she made 19 trips and helped over 300 people escape enslavement.


“Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.” -Harriet Tubman


Martha Louise Morrow Foxx

Black and white photo of Martha standing in a white dress and white hat

Martha Louise Morrow Foxx was born in 1902 in Charlotte, North Carolina. She became partially sighted when she was an infant, and later attended Governor Morehead and Overbrook Schools for the Blind. After her graduation in 1927, she went off to college. At the end of her first year at university, she was offered a teaching position at the Piney Woods Country Life School in Mississippi. She then expedited her studies to receive a bachelor’s degree over the summer.

The Piney Woods Country Life School was the first school in the state with a department to educate Black, blind students. When Martha began her position at Piney Woods in 1929, she was the sole educator and caretaker for the ten students in the program. 

Martha had a very hands-on, practical approach to teaching. "You learn by doing" was her teaching philosophy. In her curriculum, she incorporated community-based lessons, independent living, the arts and music, work-experience, and the outdoors. She was truly a forward thinker in the word of education, and was not only an teacher of students, but a teacher of teachers.

Later, along with Helen Keller, Martha advocated for the funding of educational opportunities for Black and blind students, resulting in two new schools for the blind being built in Jackson, Mississippi.


"She ministered, not only to their intellectual needs, but to their moral and spiritual needs as well." -Dr. Laurence Jones, founder of Piney Woods School, speaking of Martha Louise Morrow Foxx


Freddie Peaco

Black and white photo of Freddie at her desk with her dog at her feet

Freddie Peaco was born in North Carolina in the 1940’s. When she was about six years old, doctors discovered a visual impairment and later she attended Governor Morehead School for the Blind in Raleigh, NC. In 1961, she continued her education in Washington DC, earning her bachelor’s degree from Howard University and her master’s degree from American University. 

Freddie had a long and productive career working at the Library of Congress, National Library Service or the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), where she advocated for the production of accessible versions of documents, coordinated the production of publications, and represented the NLS at workshops and national conferences. 


Through knowing and understanding our history, we can work to dispel myths and stereotypes associated with race and disability.” -Freddie Peaco


Sources:

“HARRIET ROSS TUBMAN.” Harriet Tubman Timeline, http://www.math.buffalo.edu/~sww/0history/hwny-tubman.html.

Basehart, Sarah, and Independence Now. “Women in Disability History: Freddie Peaco.” Independence Now, 2 Mar. 2021, https://www.innow.org/2021/03/02/freddie-peaco/.

Peaco, Freddie. “Blindness and Black History: One Leader's Perspective.” Blindness and Black History: One Leader's Perspective, https://dcmp.org/learn/249-blindness-and-black-history-one-leaders-perspective.

“Women's History Month.” National Industries for the Blind, 2 June 2021, https://www.nib.org/womens-history-month/.

“Martha Louise Morrow Foxx Inducted 2013.” Martha Louise Morrow Foxx, The Hall of Fame for Leaders and Legends of the Blindness Field, https://sites.aph.org/hall/inductees/foxx/.