[Nfbc-info] Meet Francis Duncan

nancy Lynn seabreeze.stl at gmail.com
Thu May 10 14:18:27 UTC 2018

I got this from a friend and thought you’d like to see it. 
So many of our blind ancestors left us so little to remember them by.  For many, the hopelessness of blindness and the times they lived in led them to succumb to the popular view that blindness was a shameful condition or that they no longer had worth to themselves, family or society.  Too often the blinded family member was rarely discussed or participated in any events outside of family and so they are lost to us forever.


Men, far more than women made the news as they, being a man were expected to support themselves someway.  Women were to be cared for and if that woman was blind, then the expectations of society was that family would care for her.  


In reality, families could not care for dependent adults if the family were poor, large or many other reasons. This left the blind adults in the poor house or asylum, if the asylums would take a blind man.  Many would not take a blind woman because it was just not safe.  


Blind men took to begging, peddling and anything else they could find for survival.  They lived in the backs of buildings, on the streets and below bridges.  Some were arrested for vagrancy and left a trace of their lives in the local newspapers.  A blind woman would not have been able to live so with any sort of self-protection.  


Today we have the story of a man who left a few bread crumbs to help us learn just a little about his life and how he kept himself together after losing his sight at the age of about 30.


Francis E Duncan was born in Ireland about 1843, but no one really knows for sure.  He was the second son of Hubert and Christine Duncan.  The family immigrated to the United States about 1848.  The couple had four sons and one daughter, the two youngest being born in Delaware.  According to the 1860 U. S. Census, neither parent could read or write.  But their children, according to the census,  all were educated and could read and write.  Yet, his older sighted brother James, in his petition for naturalization in 1882, signed his name with an “X”, just as Francis did in later years when Francis had               been blind for years.  


Francis went to work at a young age and became a boilermaker for Harland and Hollingsworth Corporation, (H&H Co.). Much of his excess, earned funds went to purchase property in the Wilmington area that he would later build upon.    


In 1866, his taxes on a piece of his property located at 121 Washington Street in Wilmington was assessed at $25.  Many others on that tax roll paid less in taxes, indicating that Francis had developed and held successful land holdings.  At least for that listing.  


In 1863, he was a co-founder of the Shields Library Association of Wilmington Delaware.  The libraries during that time were membership organizations.  Members of the Shields Library paid a fee of five cents a week to be able to read and to take out books from the library.  IF he was not educated, he still showed a love for learning.  


While working for H & H Corp, he was involved in an accident at work in 1872.  The injuries were such that he was considered totally disabled by the company and the community.  Members of the Boilermakers and Iron Ship Builders Union held a picnic in August of that year to do what they could for their fellow brother. What other injuries he may have had were never mentioned.  It might have been that eventually, Francis was healed of the additional wounds.  


As a result of that accident, he lost the sight in one eye.  Three years later, he lost the remaining sight in the second eye.  His father had died in 1867, leaving him and younger brothers to support his mother.  Older brother James already had a family to support.  There was no family to care for him.  Sitting at home, feeling sorry for himself was not an option for Francis. 


With the property that Francis already owned, and the funds he had saved, he continued to invest in the land and build on them.  In 1878, he obtained a permit from the city of Wilmington to build another home on his land at Wright and Cedar streets.  


Although many documents do not indicate that Francis worked at a job after becoming blind, in 1880, he was listed as having some sort of work in the steel industry.  The notation included his blindness.  Did the census taker not understand that a blind person could have a job and therefore questioned the employment?  We will never know.    


At the time when Francis went blind, the state of Delaware had no rehabilitation services for blinded adults.  Yet decades later, Francis who loved to read, learned “blind reading” and secured books through the library for the blind in Delaware, after it was founded in 1909 when the Commission for the Blind Bill was passed by the state legislature.  He was one of their most voracious readers.  


By the turn of the 20th century, Duncan applied for a peddler’s license from the city of Delaware to ply wares on the streets of Wilmington. The license was $12.50  a year.  The local newspapers announced his confirmation of a license along with others, assuring the citizens that they, as peddlers had a right to work on the streets  There was no indication what wares Francis sold to the public.  


When the workshop for the blind in Wilmington opened, Francis applied to work in the shop, making brooms, rugs and the like.  This he did for more than ten years, almost until the day of his death.  Each day, he would walk alone to and from the shop, putting in  a full day’s work.  By this time, Francis was more than 70 years old.  The only alternatives for a blind person at that time to receive financial support other than working was charity.  Obviously, Francis was not willing to be a charity case of the county, church or the state.  Welfare systems for the blind were not yet established in the state of Delaware until after 1909.  


Francis is an excellent example for us that it is never too late to learn a new skill or build on old ones.

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