Celebrating Black History Month
To celebrate Black History Month we are profiling black blind and partially sighted people past and present.
Laurence Clifton Jones, 1884 – 1975
Laurence Clifton Jones was the founder and long-time president of the Piney Woods Country Life School in Piney Woods, MS. After learning of the need for a school for African-American children who were blind from Mississippi Senator Adams, in 1929 he brought Martha Louise Foxx to the Piney Woods to be the first teacher and principal of The Mississippi Blind School for Negroes at the Piney Woods School. They pioneered the first educational program in the nation to mainstream blind students. The success of this "experiment" forever removed the stigma of blindness for those who participated.
"Dr. Jones should be noted and recognised for his work in the field of blindness...Dr. Jones was the first spart that intiated a fireball of interest and support to educate all children, including those of former slaves and those who were blind." Dr. Rosie L.T. Prigden, Superintendent, Mississippi School for the Blind.
Martha Louise Morrow Foxx, 1902 – 1985
Martha Louise Morrow Foxx was an American educator who worked at the Piney Woods Country Life School campus of the Mississippi Blind School for Negroes for forty years, from 1929 to 1969. During her infancy, Martha became partially sighted. Foxx’s teaching philosophy embraced a very modern dynamic of learning outside the walls of the classroom and of incorporating nature into lessons.
"She accepted the call, challenged her limits, and impacted lives by making a difference in the dignity and quality of life of hundreds of blind indviduals who are now living across America. Those same individuals are carrying on her legacy not only today, but for many years to come." B.White Hadnott, former student.
Harriet Tubman, approximately 1820 – 1913
Harriet Tubman was a slave throughout her youth, until she eventually escaped. She was an abolitionist, humanitarian, and Union spy during the American Civil War. Harriet brought hundreds of black slaves back to safety, saving them from slavery by escaping in what was then called The Underground Railroad. After a severe wound to the head, which was inflicted by a slave owner before her escape, she became visually impaired and suffered seizures.
“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.”
Ray Charles, 1930 – 2004
Ray Charles was an American pianist and musician who shaped the sound of rhythm and blues. Charles was blinded during childhood due to glaucoma.
“Just because you can't see anything, doesn't mean you should shut your eyes.”
Marsha Chantal de Cordova, 1976 -
Marsha Chantal de Cordovea, is a British politician serving as the Member of Parliament (MP) for Battersea since 2017. A member of the Labour Party, she held the seat at the 2019 general election. She has been Shadow Secretary of State for Women and Equalities since 6 April 2020. She was born with nystagmus and is registered blind. After graduating she worked at a number of charities including Action for Blind People before founding the charity South East London Vision in 2014. As an MP, Marsha has been involved in campaigning to make the Parliamentary Estate more accessible for disabled people.
Stevie Wonder, 1950 –
Stevie Wonder is an American singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and record producer. Blind from infancy, Wonder signed with Motown Records as a pre-adolescent at the age of twelve and continues to perform and record for the label to this day. It is thought that he received excessive oxygen in his incubator which led to retinopathy of prematurity, a destructive ocular disorder affecting the retina. It is characterized by abnormal growth of blood vessels, scarring, and sometimes retinal detachment.
"Do you know, it's funny," he starts, "but I never thought of being blind as a disadvantage, and I never thought of being black as a disadvantage. I am what I am. I love me! And I don't mean that egotistically – I love that God has allowed me to take whatever it was that I had and to make something out of it." The Guardian, Aug 2012
Rahsaan Roland Kirk, 1936 – 1977
Rahsaan Kirk was an American jazz multi-instrumentalist, playing tenor saxophone, flute, and other reed instruments. He was perhaps best known for his vitality on stage, where virtuoso improvisation was accompanied by comic banter, political ranting and his famous ability to play a number of instruments simultaneously. Kirk was also very political, using the stage to talk on black history, civil rights, and other issues, which he was always capable of tipping over into high comedy. He went blind at an early age due to poor medical treatment.
"He would be like this 14 year-old blind kid playing two horns at once. They would bring him out and he would tear the joint up." Hank Crawford, Saxophonist
Al Hibbler, 1915 – 2001
Al Hibbler was an American vocalist with several pop hits. He is best known for his million selling recording of “Unchained Melody” (1955). Born Albert George Hibbler in Tyro, Mississippi, he was blind from birth. Hibbler attended a school for the blind in Little Rock, Arkansas where he joined the school choir.
“In 1972 he made an album, A Meeting of the Times, with another fiercely independent blind musician, the multi-instrumentalist Rahsaan Roland Kirk.”
William Samuel McTell, 1898 – 1959
Willam McTell, better known as Blind Willie McTell, was an influential American blues singer, songwriter, and guitarist. Born William Samuel McTier in Thomson, Georgia, blind in one eye, McTell had lost his remaining vision by late childhood, but became an adept reader of Braille. He showed proficiency in music from an early age and learned to play the six-string guitar as soon as he could.
“I jump 'em from other writers but I arrange 'em my own way.”
Clarence Carter, 1936 –
Clarence Carter is a blind American soul singer and musician. Born in Montgomery, Alabama on 14 January 1936, Carter attended the Alabama School for the Blind in Talladega, Alabama, and Alabama State College in Montgomery, graduating in August 1960 with a Bachelor of Science degree in music.
“Blind from birth, Carter references his blindness in several of his hits, including "I'd Rather Go Blind" and "I Can't See Myself."
David Alexander Paterson, 1954 –
David Alexander Paterson is an American politician and the former Governor of New York. He is the first African American governor of New York and the second legally blind governor of any U.S. state after Bob C. Riley, who was Governor of Arkansas for eleven days in January 1975. At the age of three months, Paterson contracted an ear infection which spread to his optic nerve, leaving him with no sight in his left eye and severely limited vision in his right eye.
“After law school, David worked for the Queens District Attorney's Office, but did not pass the New York bar examination. He claimed that his failing was partially the result of insufficient accommodation for his visual impairment and has since advocated for changes in bar exam procedures.”
Geraldine Jerrie Lawhorn, 1916 –2016
Geraldine Lawhorn was a figure of the American Deaf-Blind community, a performer, actress, pianist, then instructor at the Hadley Institute for the Blind and Visually Impaired. At 67 years old, she became the first deaf-blind African American to earn a college degree in the United States of America.
“Jerrie volunteered to participate in early experiments to see if dogs were able to lead blind people and received a dog called Blondie. After a couple of months, Blondie could stay with Jerrie.”
The Blind Boys of Alabama
The Blind Boys of Alabama, is an American gospel group. The group was founded in 1939 in Talladega, Alabama and has featured a changing roster of musicians over its history, the majority of whom are or were visually impaired. The Blind Boys have won five Grammy Awards in addition to being presented with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009.
"Our disability doesn't have to be a handicap. It's not about what you can't do. It's about what you do. And what we do is sing good gospel music." Group member Ricky McKinnie 2011 interview.
Henry Wanyoike,1974 -
Henry Wanyoike is a Kenyan long-distance runner and competes in the Paralympics and in marathon racing. Wanyoike became almost completely blind after suffering a stroke on 1 May 1995.
"I went to bed a normal person, the following day I found myself in darkness." That night he lost 95% of his vision, and lost the rest gradually over the next few years. He was in despair. "I thought my life had come to an end."
Ethnicity and Sight Loss
How are people from black and minority ethnic communities affected by sight loss? People from certain ethnic communities are at greater risk of some of the leading causes of sight loss:
- Black African and Caribbean people are four to eight times more at risk of developing certain forms of glaucoma compared to white people
- The risk of diabetic eye disease is around three times greater in South Asian people compared to white people
- Black African and Caribbean people are also at a higher risk of diabetic eye disease.
(Wormald et al., 1994; Cross et al.,2007; Pardhan et al., 2004; Sivaprasad et al., 2012)