A Visit To Louis Braille's Birthplace

by Kenneth Jernigan

Copyright © 1995
National Federation of the Blind

          The French have a well-known proverb: The more things change, the more they stay the same. I thought of that proverb on Tuesday, May 17, 1994, when I went to the birthplace of Louis Braille (1809-1852) in Coupvray, France, and read the guide book provided to visitors. It says on page nine:

          "At the age of thirteen Louis Braille began his research with a view to designing an alphabet based on a cell of six raised dots. The system was enthusiastically acclaimed by the pupils but was rejected by the teachers (1826). Being sighted themselves, they refused to countenance a form of writing which they could not read."

          In reading that passage I was, of course, mindful of the fact that not all teachers are chauvinistic nor all students enthusiastic, but the parallel between the 1820's in France and the 1990's in the United States is remarkable and noteworthy. The road to Braille literacy for the blind has been long and, in more than one sense, bumpy--and the end is not yet discernible. If we do our work well, it can probably be reached some time early in the next century.

          My trip to Coupvray was part of the effort which the National Federation of the Blind is making to try to help repair and restore the Louis Braille birthplace and museum. Mrs. Jernigan and I left Dulles Airport Sunday evening, May 15, and arrived in Paris the next morning. That afternoon we met with Marcel Herb, President of the French Federation of the Blind; Rodolfo Cattani of Italy, Vice President of the World Blind Union; and Fran‡ois Bentz, the mayor of Coupvray. Mr. Bentz is a no-nonsense fellow, who attended college in the United States and speaks fluent English. I believe he operates a factory for the making of blue jeans and engages in other enterprises. He made it clear that he wants the Louis Braille birthplace thoroughly restored and that he is prepared to take a leading part in getting it done.

          Earlier this year at the meeting of the World Blind Union Executive Committee in Melbourne, Australia, we were told that architectural studies had been made and that approximately $110,000 would be needed to do a thorough job of repairing and renovating the Louis Braille home. As Monitor readers know, I pledged on behalf of the National Federation of the Blind to try to raise half of the needed money. When I returned to the United States, the Board of the NFB agreed to undertake the project.

          At the May 16 meeting Mr. Bentz said that the actual estimates would be closer to $170,000 than $110,000 but that his plan might not require more than $26,000 from us. Here is how he outlined it: $26,000 from the Town of Coupvray; another $26,000 from Coupvray, which it would receive back as a tax refund; $26,000 from us; $70,000 from a French governmental authority; and the remaining $22,000 from another governmental authority. He said that appropriate applications were underway and that he felt that the work of repair and renovation should not begin until a response had been received from the governmental authorities. "If we start the work before getting a commitment from them," he said, "they will think we don't need the government money, and there will be no chance of getting it."

          When I told him that the National Federation of the Blind was prepared to make an immediate contribution of $10,000 to show that we were serious and meant business, he was delighted and responded with a proposal that underscores his good judgment and understanding of politics and public relations. He suggested that officials of the World Blind Union, leaders of the French Federation of the Blind, and I go to the Louis Braille birthplace on Wednesday afternoon, where the $10,000 check would be presented in a public ceremony. Pictures would be taken; journalists would be present; and an article would be written saying that if the blind of America could give money to restore Braille's birthplace (and not only give the money but come all the way to France to bring it), surely the French government could be forthcoming. This is exactly what we did, but there were intervening activities and meetings.

          On Tuesday, May 17, the leaders of the French Federation, Dr. Cattani, Mrs. Jernigan, and I drove to Coupvray to inspect Louis Braille's birthplace. I examined the house in great detail, from the third floor area to the wine barrel in the cellar, and I talked at length with the architect to see what was planned, and why. Here is a summary of what I learned:

          Let me begin by saying that I went to Coupvray with a number of misconceptions. I don't know why, but I had thought the Louis Braille home was made of wood and that it was probably about to fall down. It isn't. It is made of stone. The first floor of one part of the house (the workshop and the entry room adjoining it) is made of concrete. The second and third floors are wood. The interior walls are stone with no paneling on them.

          The house, which was built sometime in the latter part of the 1700's, is basically in sound condition. However, certain things need to be done. The roof is made of clay tiles. Some of these have deteriorated, and others are missing. Water is coming through. Where necessary, the roof must be re-tiled. There is leakage around the base of the chimney, which must be repaired.Below ground, the walls and foundation must have a layer of waterproofing material; and above ground, plastering and repair must be done as required. Original exterior shutters have been replaced by more modern ones. There is nothing wrong with these modern shutters, but a return to the original style will be made.

          Inside the house the walls must be thoroughly dried, scraped, and painted, and the doors and windows must also be painted and refurbished. Originally the structure was two houses with a common interior wall. As I understand it, the two houses had, by the time of Louis Braille, become one by means of a door cut through the common wall at the third-floor stair landing. This creates a hazardous situation since the step through the wall does not open directly onto a level area but another stairway, one that is steep and narrow. It would be easy to lose your balance and go tumbling. In fact, I had to reach around the corner to find footing as I stepped through the doorway. This situation must be remedied with a slight alteration and the addition of a step.

          As to other inside repairs, all stairways will be removed, reinforced, and then reinstalled. There is a fairly good-sized hole in the floor of one of the rooms at the third floor level, and there may be other less obvious damage. All floors must be examined and, where needed, repaired. At the first floor level, the entry room and adjoining workshop (the one used by Louis Braille's father, who was a saddle and harness maker) were originally floored with brick. Later, the bricks were removed and replaced with concrete. It is planned to remove the concrete and replace it with brick.

          I was as thorough and careful as I knew how to be, and of course I was moved by the spirit of the place. I sat in a chair with a leather strap seat by the workbench in the saddle shop and felt the worn surface. I looked at the tools of the saddle maker's trade and held in my hands an awl (or curved narrow blade) of the type that blinded Louis Braille in that very room at that very bench. I reached into the stone oven in the kitchen, which is part of the living room. I touched the table and chairs- -not, I suppose, the originals but certainly of the type and period of the originals. I went to the cellar and looked at the accoutrements of wine making--particularly, the huge barrel and old wine bottles.

          As I went through the house and communed with the essence of the place, I thought of Louis Braille's letters to his family when he was living in Paris:

"Paris, 10th September, 1847

Dear Mother,

          I do so long to see you. Staying in the big town bores me and I shall be happy to breathe the air of our countryside and to wander with you through the vineyards. . . ."

"Paris, 15th November, 1848

Dear Mother,

          I was happy to note that the weather was fine for the grape harvest, as fine as one could wish for, but today the sun is very pale. The cold season has begun and we have to stay indoors. As for me, I do not go out and while the Parisians were receiving snow on their heads as they went to the Feast of the Constitution, I was content to listen to the cannon from my well-heated room. . . ."

"Paris, 5th October, 1851

My dear nephew, my dear niece,

          I have just sent off to you by train a small box of jujubes. I hope it will keep you safe from the colds which the winter season will bring you. . . . I have just spent three days in Coupvray and have now returned [to Paris], not to leave it again before next summer. . . ."

          For Louis Braille there was no next summer since he was to die three months after he wrote this letter--January 6, 1852.

          The visit to Louis Braille's home and the reading of his letters caused me to wonder what he thought as he was growing up and how he felt, but it also caused me to think about my own childhood and how I felt and thought. It strengthened my determination to do all I can to preserve and continue the Louis Braille heritage, for except for him I might still be living as a virtual prisoner on the farm where I grew up in Tennessee, hungering to know and longing for freedom. Instead, I escaped to a broader world of books and achievement, to a life of opportunity and hope, and to a distant day in France when I stood at the birthplace of my benefactor and reached across the years to a common bond. Yes, the home of Louis Braille will survive. The blind of today will make it happen, and the blind of future generations will keep the commitment.

          David Blyth of Australia, President of the World Blind Union; Pedro Zurita of Spain, Secretary General of the World Blind Union; and Pierre Paul B‚langer of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, who came as a representative of Dr. Euclid Herie, arrived in Paris late Tuesday afternoon, May 17. They, along with those of us who had gone to Coupvray the day before, met on Wednesday morning with officials of the French government who deal with museums. Mr. Herb had previously been given assurances that help would be available from the department responsible for museums, but from the outset of our meeting it was clear that we would get pleasant speeches and little else. The officials said that there were only about 31 national museums in France and that there was no possibility that the Louis Braille birthplace could be added to the list. They said that there were two other kinds of museums: those that are run by local government authorities, and those that are run by associations. They said that the Louis Braille Museum could fit into either category but that regardless of category they could give no help with repair and renovation. As I saw it, they were saying that they might give help in finding new objects for the Louis Braille Museum, but not until repairs were made and money was available for ongoing upkeep--and that they might help with ongoing upkeep but not until more objects had been collected.

          Mr. Herb was outraged and told them so--and David Blyth, who is capable of succinct (one might almost say sparse) communication, said: "There is no point in continuing this meeting. We should not waste your time or ours." With that and Mr. Herb's remarks we left. Let me make it clear that this discussion with the museum officials had nothing to do with the government assistance that the mayor of Coupvray is seeking, and thinks he can get. Let me also say at this point that Mr. Herb publicly and unequivocally pledged that the French Federation of the Blind would make sizable financial contributions to help with the work.

          On Wednesday afternoon our expanded company boarded a mini- bus and headed once more for Coupvray. At the Louis Braille birthplace we met the mayor, and I presented NFB's check for $10,000. It was done amid the flashing of cameras and the scribbling of journalists. I have not seen the article, but I suspect that Mr. Bentz will guide it to fulsome nature and wide distribution.

          In any event, when the deed was done, we headed for the town hall, where the mayor served up champagne and toasts. He is a suitable leader for his town, which is located about forty miles southeast of Paris and has been designated a historic district. The houses and public buildings (even those of more modern vintage) are of the style and appearance of the early 1800s. Everywhere there are stone walls, tile roofs, and a flavor of the past.

          The only thing left to say about the visit to France is that it was pleasant as well as productive. Mr. and Mrs. Herb and Madame Yvonne Torres, Mr. Herb's charming and capable assistant, were excellent hosts. On Tuesday we went for lunch to a restaurant in the Meaux area, where Meaux mustard and Brie cheese abound. There were also other enjoyable experiences, but I will leave it at that.

          On Thursday morning, May 19, Mrs. Jernigan and I headed for London, where we talked with officials of the Royal National Institute for the Blind. It is good to go abroad to work on a constructive project, but it is even better to come home to help bring the project to completion.

          The task before us is clear cut and doable. As I have said before, in the Monitor and on Presidential Releases, those who want to participate in this project should make checks payable to the National Federation of the Blind and send them to the National Federation of the Blind, 1800 Johnson Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21230. Such contributions should not be made by reducing other contributions which would have been made to the Federation. Our ongoing work must continue. Contributions may be made by check or credit card, and there should be an indication that the money is for the repair of the Louis Braille birthplace.

          The job will require effort. Maybe we will need to raise only $26,000--maybe the entire $55,000. Maybe more. Whatever sums are needed, we the blind, along with our sighted friends and colleagues, will see that Louis Braille's home is fully restored and given its proper place among the museums of the world and the historic places of humanity. We can, and we will. Let nobody doubt it.

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