By: Joyce Scanlan, Former President
1995 was a very special year for the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota, for it was the seventy-fifth anniversary of the founding of our state organization.
In 1920 blind citizens of Minnesota took a very bold step forward when they incorporated the statewide organization which today is known as the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota. A review of the carefully-kept minutes of the organization's business during those early days makes very interesting reading. As would be expected, there were very strong personalities with very definite opinions on what the organization's purpose and goals were to be. To say that there were clashes and disagreements and conflicts would be putting it mildly.
Among the very active and outspoken members were Frank Finsterbach, Frank Hall, John Mortenson, C.J. McGinnis, Otto Gray (president for nine out of fifteen years), Herman Marquart, and Frank Jordan. Christopher Easton, who joined later in the 1920's, did much work in the state legislature. Lillian Frendin, elected in 1924, was the first woman to serve on the board. She served as president from 1928 to 1930 and was vice president in 1941.
Minutes tell of board meetings and conventions filled with lively discussions around membership, legislation, fundraising, white canes and reed canes, and just about everything else the organization might be expected to address. All decisions were thrashed out amid hot tempers and threats and fiery speeches.
Ownership of a building was the first major goal of the organization. Members seem to have been united on that. But the use of that building was another point for heated argument. The building should be known as an industrial center where blind people could pay rent and operate their individual businesses. No, the building should be used as a home for blind people, who were turned away by their county poorhouses, to live. Even in the early days, according to the minutes, the organization was begging people to come and live at the home. One member attempted to introduce a resolution that would have required a person to "be of good character" to be eligible to live at the home; to him, this meant the blind person must have a job. The resolution was opposed by Mr. Easton, who pointed out that getting a job was difficult for a blind person and you could have a "good character" and not have a job. The resolution did not pass. One wonders what was resolved in this discussion. Was the conflict over "good character" or "having a job"?
So the Industrial Center was opened on October 19, 1929. Rent was $7 per week but was reduced to $5 per week when the depression hit. What a radical step it was for blind people to establish and operate a facility. There were the perennial questions involved in managing a building: Should towels be provided to guests staying at the home? Should married couples be allowed to live in the home? Dogs and cats are allowed only in the basement or outside. Women are not allowed in the smoking room. Men and women are not allowed to visit each other in their rooms. Should blind people be hired to manage the home?
While most of the early activities centered on the building, other issues were addressed. The "pension" for blind people received attention for several years. As is still true today, Braille was a very important issue. Shortly after the talking book program began, blind people began to notice that less Braille was being produced and passed resolutions pointing this out and warning that Braille must remain important. The Minnesota organization was one of the first to recognize the value in Grade Two Braille and urged the residential school in Faribault to teach Grade Two to its students. This all happened in the 1930s. White canes were a topic of conversation and concern also. The organization managed to convince both Minneapolis and St. Paul to pass city ordinances allowing blind people to use the white cane. There was a matter of "whistles for the blind." The organization purchased many whistles to give to blind people in the area. These whistles were carried by blind people while traveling about the cities. When they arrived at street crossings, they would blow their whistles so someone would come to help them cross the street. This was before white canes and rehabilitation training on how to use them.
Certainly, the organization served as a vehicle for self expression and collective action for blind people of the era.
In 1970 when I joined the National Federation of the Blind, the organization was celebrating its fiftieth anniversary. The National Convention was held here in Minneapolis, and the State Conventions that year featured many activities to commemorate the occasion of the Golden Birthday. The Minnesota Organization of Blind, as it was called until 1972 when the name was changed to its present form of National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota, was comprised of many members who had joined the organization in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. Torger Lien, Archie Erickson, Kenneth Johnson, Evangeline Larson, George Whitteker, and Ingwald Gunderson were all key figures as I became involved in the organization. Jim Schleppegrell, who was president in 1970, Nellie Ask, and Marie Whitteker joined the organization back in the late 1940s and were very active in 1970. In other words, most of the membership was over 50 and anyone younger than that was welcomed into the organization with great warmth. One of the first matters of concern that I became interested in was consumer representation on agency boards. The membership seemed very united on this issue and forged ahead with a vigorous effort that lasted--with ups and downs, but ultimate success--for the next 12 years. Without question, agency boards today face the fact that in order to earn consumer support, they must include blind people on their policy-making boards. We had victories that didn't take 12 years also. Laws were passed; bylaws were amended to allow for chapters in the metro area; chapters were established throughout the state; the Home and Center for the Blind was closed and the property sold; a new office was opened and we launched into heavy public education on blindness; BLIND, Inc. was established to allow blind people a choice in orientation-to-blindness training and better prospects for success in independence and employment.
By far, the greatest accomplishment of the Federation in Minnesota over the past quarter century has been our increased involvement in the Organized Blind Movement throughout the country. We participate in Washington Seminars and National Conventions. On very short notice, we can dispatch large numbers of blind people to help anywhere in the country in a demonstration against the now-quite-dead National Accreditation Council--I don't want to waste the space writing out the whole name because it's so unimportant--or any other agency or entity that hurts blind people. The Federation has grown to be the greatest force in the lives of the nation's blind population. We in Minnesota can be proud that we have played a significant role in that progress.
We did have cause for celebration in our seventy-fifth anniversary year. A grande committee prepared a year-long series of activities to recognize our past successes. Peggy Chong reviewed past minutes to pull together worthy points of our outstanding history. Her reports were included in Minnesota Bulletins and read at chapter meetings. Steve Jacobson, Eric Smith, and Tim Aune were assigned the task of preparing a sound tape with historical events drawn from past recordings. Extensive public relations and education on blindness was undertaken throughout the state. A special publication on the 75th anniversary celebration was circulated during 1995. 75th anniversary commemorative items such as Minnesota-shaped keychains with print and braille writing were available at State and National conventions. Our building at 100 East 22nd Street was decorated throughout the year to recognize points of interest in our history or past activities, braille display, white-cane exhibit, photographs of past leaders, etc. Special events were scheduled during 1995 to note the great progress of our Movement.
Seventy-five years means lots of history to learn from. Federationists can be proud and thankful that the blind people who came before us, while their philosophies of blindness and their techniques for dealing with society's problems may be quite different from ours, had the foresight to create and build an organization like the Federation to be here for those of us who came along much later. The early Federationists may have quarreled too much and about the wrong things, in our opinion, but no one can deny that they felt very strongly about whatever they did. The organization meant something important to them. They were willing to fight hard for whatever they believed in. We can all learn from them.
Come and join us as we honor the first 75 years of the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota