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Perkins Alumni Association

The Perkins Alumni Association has a long history of advocacy. Beyond serving the school, members advocated on behalf of all individuals with blindness and visual impairment leaving a lasting legacy.

Portraits of three Alumni Association founders

The founding

In 1884 Perkins Alumni Association was founded by four friends and graduates of Perkins from the Class of 1883: Lenna Swinerton, Julia Burnham, and Mary McCaffery. The first official meeting of the Alumnae Association was held on the evening of June 2, 1885, at Perkins, then located in South Boston. The resolutions previously drawn up by the class of 1884, were read and accepted, after which an article of membership was signed and officers were elected. Of the co-founders, Lenna Swinerton served as the first President, Julia Burnham as Vice President, and Jennie Colby as Secretary. 

The first resolution stated that the Alumni Association would keep track of and provide information to Perkins regarding alumni contact information, occupations, or “any other statistics concerning her which may be desired” (Alumni Association). The second resolution outlined that it was a duty and privilege for the “indebtedness” that alumni felt the school had prepared their character and academics (Alumni Association). The Alumni Association however has a legacy of advocacy that went well beyond these initial goals of service. Some highlights of their important legacy are provided here.

The Mentor magazine

The Perkins Alumni Association started and published a monthly magazine from 1891-1894 called The Mentor. Perkins alumnus and former teacher, Joel West Smith, played a large part in starting the magazine which he later managed. Devoted to the interests of people who are blind and to those in the blindness field, this print publication was a means of sharing pedagogy, accommodations, tools, and more with the intention of improving the lives of people who were blind. A message from the premier issue,

“Come with theories and methods, with advice and suggestions, with defeats and discouragements, with questions, and with topics for debate! These pages are open for the friendly and profitable discussion of all subjects which will promote the cause to which they are pledged” (“To our readers”).

The magazine sought contributors who were both blind and sighted and had readers and contributors from all over the world. 

Though it lasted only 3 years, the magazine had a wide impact. Among other things, it is credited with leading to the adoption of the stereotype machine in Japan making tactile reading material available to the blind in that country(“Article”).  Anne Sullivan is said to have stated that The Mentor inspired Helen Keller, a dedicated reader, to learn to speak (“Article”).

Home teaching

Perkins School for the Blind was able to serve young people who were blind, but adults who had never been educated, or who became blind as adults, lacked access to the same kinds of training and support that enabled independent living and well-being. Perkins alumni began addressing this problem before the state of Massachusetts stepped in. In 1897 the Alumni Association voted to home teach adults to read and the Perkins Board of Trustees authorizes Director Michael Anagnos to “defray any reasonable expense which may be incurred in the accomplishment of the purpose outlined in the above vote” (“The Library, 28).  It was reported in a 1903 edition of the Boston Transcript that the “graduates of Perkins Institution have been, in a quiet and unostentatious way, doing what they could for some of the adult blind by visiting them, giving their services as teachers and helpers, and relieving suffering when possible” (Rowley, 31). 

By 1900 the Massachusetts Legislature appropriated $5000 a year to pay for home teaching (Rowley 34). Alumnus John Vars was appointed head of the new Home Teaching Department at Perkins in 1901” (John Vars 29). Teachers went to homes where they taught skills that could include reading, writing, knitting, crocheting, hand sewing, machine stitching, and typewriting and there was a store in Boston that sold the work  (“Justice” 24). Teaching jobs offered job opportunities for individuals who were blind, such as Lydia Hayes who stated that she was, “particularly pleased to think that I can do general teaching among grown persons who are doubly afflicted by being both blind and illiterate” (“Blind Girl, 108“). 

A unified system of tactile type

The Alumni Association also played a part in advocating for a standardized system of tactile print. The fight for a unified system began in the 19th century. President of the Perkins Alumni Association, Charles W. Holmes had been part of the Tactile Print Investigating Commission which was succeeded by the Uniform Type Committee of the American Association of Workers for the Blind in 1905. That same year he, wrote to the 1905 convention of the American Association of Workers for the Blind, pleading for the adoption of a uniform code.

“In order to avail himself of the full range of literature (which at best is woefully limited) the blind reader must learn, and keep well up in all these codes,” he wrote. “How long would our seeing friends stand for such a state of affairs in ink type? Imagine for a moment the ridiculous situation that would arise, if the daily papers published in Boston had an entirely different system of characters from those used by New York publishers, and that a Philadelphia man could not read either without special training, because his own city had adopted a third, as unlike the others as the Chinese characters are unlike the Roman” (Irwin 22).

It would take until 1917 for the United States to agree on a standardized system of Braille and 1932 for a standardized system of braille for English-speaking countries (“Dissemination of Braille”).

Conclusion

The Perkins Alumni Association, which still exists today, has a long history of advocacy. Beyond serving the school, the Alumni Association advocated on behalf of all individuals with blindness and visual impairment. By publishing a monthly magazine to share knowledge, initiating literacy and rehabilitation services for adults, and fighting for a standardized system of tactile type, the Perkins Alumni Association improved access to books, education, employment, and well-being for countless others.

Related Perkins Archives stories

Related Perkins Archives collections

Related Perkins Archives digital collections

Works cited

Alumni Association. “​​Alumni Association Resolutions of 1883 in braille, undated.” Box 5, Folder 12. AG59 Perkins Alumni Association Records. Perkins School for the Blind Archives, Watertown, MA.  20 July 2022.

Blind Girl to Teach the Blind.” Boston Sunday Post,  11, November 1909, p. 108. Perkins Scrapbook of Clippings, January 1900 – December 1900, available on the Internet Archive.

Coit, Susanna. “1917 Halifax Explosion Spurred Outreach from Perkins School for the Blind Alumni.” Perkins Archives Blog, Perkins School for the Blind, Watertown MA. December 5, 2017.

Dissemination of Braille.” 200 Years: The Life and Legacy of Louis Braille, available on AFB.org.

John Vars.” Massachusetts Commission for the Blind Ninth Annual Report, 1915, pp.29-31, Available on Google Books..

Justice to Whom Justice is Due.” The Outlook,  9, March 1907, pp. 23-24. Perkins School for the Blind Bound Clippings: Massachusetts Adult Blind, 1907-1909, available on the Internet Archive.

Robert B. Irwin, “The War of the Dots,” in As I Saw It (New York: American Foundation for the Blind, 1955), 22-23, accessed April 8, 2022, https://archive.org/details/asisawit00robe/page/22/mode/2up.

Rowley, Francis H. “The Adult Blind of Massachusetts: A Call to Pressing Duty.” The Boston Tranascript,  25, February 1903, p. 31. Perkins School for the Blind Bound Clippings: Massachusetts Adult Blind, 1886-1906, available on the Internet Archive.

The Library and its Uses.” Sixty-Seventh Annual Report of the Trustees of the Perkins Institution and Massachusetts School for the Blind, 1898, p. 26-28 Available on the Internet Archive.

To Our Readers.” The Mentor, January 1891, pp. 5-7. Available on the Internet Archive.

Article announcing death of Joel West Smith, who inspired Helen Keller with his “Mentor” publication.” 1925 Helen Keller Archive. Available on AFB.org.

Suggested citation

Hale, Jen. “Perkins Alumni Association” Perkins Archives Blog, Perkins School for the Blind, Watertown MA, July 22, 2022.

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