In honor of Women’s History Month, I contacted the Blind History lady, Peggy Chong, to share the story of Emily Raspberry, a Black blind woman who became a teacher for the blind and visually impaired. This blog post is a reprint from the February 2022 issue of the Blind History lady monthly email. It has been edited for clarity and length.
Vision Loss and Early Schooling
Emily Raspberry was born December 12, 1915, in Alabama. Emily came down with the flu at age four. When Emily recovered, she was totally blind.
Her mother sent her to public school with her older brother. However, no accommodations for a blind and Black child were possible. So, Emily listened and participated in class orally, not learning to read or write. Finally, Emily was sent to and enrolled at the Alabama School for the Negro Deaf and Blind in the fall of 1926. Although Emily was homesick, there was so much to learn. In only two weeks she mastered the braille code and read all 130 books the school owned. A new world opened to Emily. She had a glimpse of the sighted world and she wanted to be a part of it. Emily’s teachers were impressed with her quick accomplishment of the braille code and placed her in the upper class. She studied hard to cram in several years of learning into her first year.
Death and Separation From Family
Emily returned home on May 22, 1927, finding her mother gravely ill. She was home only a few hours before her mother died. A funeral was planned in days. After the funeral, Emily was told she would live with her half-sister, in West Virginia. During this time, Emily experienced a range of emotions. She felt the joy of returning home to show how well she could learn and be successful as a blind child. To the shock of her mother’s death. To the heart-wrenching separation from her family.
Education and Decision to Teach the Blind
Emily was enrolled in the West Virginia School for The Colored Blind almost immediately. She found they had twice the braille books in their library and magazines in braille. Emily threw herself into her studies. She found her classes were harder than in Alabama. Unlike other schools, West Virginia held unsegregated classes including both for the deaf and the blind students. The boys had one dorm and the girls the other. There were no separate dorms for the blind and deaf students. Rooms were crowded, sometimes three or four boys shared a room that would have been considered small for two.
There is no record of when Emily graduated, but it is believed to be either 1932 or 1933. She went to college afterward and enrolled at the West Virginia State College for Negro’s in Dunbar. At the end of her first year of college in 1935, she knew she wanted to be a teacher in a school for the blind. Her hope was to share her love of reading and literature to open the world for other blind and colored students to the possibilities of the outside world. She graduated in 1938 and continued classes through the West Virginia State College, enabling her to become a certified teacher of the blind. She received her master’s degree from Hampton University.
Emily started as an academic teacher in the primary grades at the West Virginia School for the Colored Blind in 1940 in Institute (Clarksburg), West Virginia. She taught reading and writing for the blind kids and deaf children in her classes. When the school for the white, in Romney, and the school for the colored combined in 1955, she was one of only three teachers from the colored school that made the transfer. Not all the colored students from Clarksville transitioned to Romney. The staff at Romney were friendly but Emily did not mix socially. For at least the first year, Emily took a room in the student dorms as did the other single teachers. As a single woman, and the only Black faculty in the blind department, she may have felt out of place.
Innovative Teaching Style
Emily was innovative in her teaching style. When she recognized a spark, she assigned a poetry lesson for spelling class to bring out the creativity of the students. The children were encouraged to write a poem including all of the spelling words for the week. In her braille classes, she taught the students to work with a slate and stylus, while other teachers used the Perkins Braille Writer. She incorporated listening to the radio into her classes to ensure student’s interest. Lessons were assigned to write about what they heard on the radio. The eighth-grade class in 1956, wrote a quiz show based on the show, “The Big Surprise.”
Emily supervised school trips to watch plays or listen to concerts. For years, Emily had season tickets to the Cumberland Classical Musical Series. Each year, she paid season passes for four students who had an interest in music. She took the students to the concerts by bus or driver. When an interesting movie, mostly historical films such as “Man of All Seasons,” was premiering she would ask students to accompany her. She paid for their tickets and treated the kids to their own box of popcorn.
A memorable year was 1967 when she was chosen to supervise a student teacher. Emily was honored and proud as the student teacher was a former blind student. In 1969, Emily taught health. Most likely not her favorite subject, but she entered the class with the same enthusiasm as her English classes, even though textbooks were more than twenty years old. One assignment was to make up word puzzles relating to their health lessons. When the project was over, the best questions were put into an article for the school newspaper, “The Tablet,” to show how much her students learned that semester.
Travels and Experiences on Vacation
Emily frequently took the Greyhound bus to Washington, DC for vacation. When a student of hers also rode the bus, she would talk to them about their schoolwork or family. In class, Emily mentioned her travels to DC commenting on the friendliness of the hotel staff and sadness that the maids were paid so little. Other summer vacations were never wasted. She took classes at Harvard. In 1961 she worked as a proofreader for Perkins Braille Press. Vacations meant visiting exhibits at the planetarium, museums, or attending concerts usually in Boston. At one concert, she spoke briefly to Senator Edward Kennedy, who was also attending. Their meeting was exciting for Emily, and she shared the news with her students about her encounter with a man who would make history. There were also trips to attend conventions of the AAWB of which she was a member.
Retirement and Death
She retired at the end of the 1977 school term and moved to Boston. Emily kept in touch with some of the Romney residents. They wrote to her in print, and she answered them in print. She died September 12, 1988, in Vermont.
About the History lady
Peggy Chong is the author of more than a dozen books about “Blind Ancestors” who have made a difference. Her monthly email list to her followers highlights another “Blind Ancestor.” She wrote the history column for Dialogue Magazine, “The Way We Were”.
In 2016, Peggy launched “The Blind History Lady” project. This project has to date published thirteen books, detailing the lives of what she calls her “blind ancestors” who quietly made a difference in the lives of the blind men and women of today. Each book highlights their struggles and triumphs as blind people and highlights the normality of their lives and how each person was an integral part of his/her community as a normal citizen.
Peggy’s goal is to have the history of the average blind and disabled person taught—not just to the blind and disabled themselves, but to those entering into professional fields where their jobs will impact people with disabilities. Blind people historically held regular jobs and pursued professions that are the same as professions occupied by people without disabilities. These blind individuals performed exceptionally well, setting examples for others. By understanding what the blind and disabled have achieved in the past and knowing the history of the contributions made by people with disabilities to our country, our society will be much more willing and accepting of the disabled.
For more information and to subscribe to her monthly email list contact the Blind History Lady at firstname.lastname@example.org.