The Strike of ’43

Read more about this in Men Without Fear, available at Amazon.

When it came to John Jensen’s character, his failures could be as telling as his successes. Fred Tarrant recalls a night when his buddy John was heading out on a big date. Fred, though blind, could see better than John, so John had him inspect his outfit. Fred was impressed with John’s stunning white suit and red boutonnière, and sent John off into the New York night with his full approval. John returned later that night with his white suit splattered with grease, soil, and blood. He had fallen off a train platform en route to his date!

Here Fred recollects another mishap: [1]

I am sure I told you about your dad’s disappearing down a freight loading opening in the sidewalk in NYC. The workers left the metal door open and down he went onto a pile of scrap iron.

John wasn’t the only blind kid roaming the streets of Manhattan without so much as a cane. The Institute encouraged students to conceal their blindness, as did a kind of daredevil subculture among some of the students.

Even the games played on the Institute grounds seemed inordinately hazardous, for instance a form of football in which teams of blind kids rushed simultaneously after a loose football.

Then there are the social hazards. Fred Tarrant recalls: [2]

I know one time we were to meet in the cocktail lounge at the Hotel Victoria, [3] … I arrived late and found J.J. dreadfully depressed. He said he had tried to order a drink and the bartender refused as he was blind.

Bob Russell offered some good anecdotes about blind people being refused service in his memoir, one of which is quite funny. I sometimes wonder whether incidents like this made my father more sensitive to the plight of the targets of racial discrimination. As noted earlier, the Institute itself was racially integrated and sometimes was not permitted to field its best athletes against white-only schools. That alone, with a little competitive spirit, would be enough to turn a segregator into an integrator. Perhaps both of these factors would make my father more inclined to resist racism in South Carolina and South Africa.

John Jensen was sometimes a student leader and sometimes a maverick; even a nuisance. One particular incident comes to mind. It occurred in April 1943, when John, now 18, had reached an age when a sighted person might be permitted to pass an hour with the opposite sex. It was also a time when John’s glaucoma began to flare up. John and Fred decided to protest the rigid separation of girls and boys at the Institute. They organized a sit-down strike in assembly to protest school conditions, including restrictions to contact between girls and boys, and limits to weekend permits. There was no rioting or shouting, only silent “civil disobedience.” Principal Frampton lost his temper and suspended the many students who followed John and Fred into the strike. They were all suspended. Fred went home with John to Mount Kisco.

Fred recalls:[4]

When your dad and I were kicked out of the Institute that same day … we went to talk with the powers that be at the high school in Chappaqua, Westchester County, to see if we could enroll there. Got turned down fast.

Joe Giovanelli, Class of ’47, was of middle school age—just turning 14, and did not follow through on the strike. His perspective on the matter is illuminating:

… I sensed some restlessness among many of the students. Something really big was brewing! Bob[5] asked me if I’d join what he called a “strike.” He talked about the fact that we (the students) didn’t have any representation.

It was a week or so before Easter. Morning Assembly was convened as usual. A few of us refused to leave our seats. The principal, Dr. Frampton, (whom we all hated) was in charge on that fateful morning. Assembly was dismissed. As people filed out of the room, the others remained seated. One person shouted that we wouldn’t leave until our grievances against the school were addressed. The principal immediately shouted to one of the proctors: “Take down the names of these students and send them all home!” Bob was among those “rebels”. Well inasmuch as I really didn’t understand what the whole business was about, I quickly got out of there before my name could be taken.

… the halls and classrooms were emptier than usual. A hush fell on everything. Would these kids come back? Would I ever see Bob again? … I was sad to the point of tears. …

After 19 days of suspension, the suspended students were offered amnesty in exchange for an apology. John and Fred did not apologize, so their suspensions were extended, and they packed up and returned to Mount Kisco. After a couple weeks, the Institute’s board of directors inquired into the suspensions and chose to terminate the suspensions unconditionally. John and Fred returned to the Bronx, no strings attached. Fred reports that Principal Frampton was extra nice after the two returned to school. Fred also reports that John’s father was not happy about John losing school time. Fred assures me that Mr. Jensen did not lose his temper, but he was very serious about his dream of his son becoming a doctor, and he made it clear that he was disappointed.

Joe Giovanelli continues:

A week went by and none of the guys came back. There was a rumor going around that some were back and having a meeting with the principal. Then I saw for myself that all of those who were dismissed were back. In one of those assemblies the principal explained that there would be some changes as to how the school was run. The way it was, if someone did something wrong, he or she would have been suspended or expelled. Now there would be a merit system. Slight misbehavior would earn one demerit. If a person got ten demerits, he would be called to the principal’s office and might or might not be dismissed for a while. … A Student Government was also set up so that many problems would be referred to that body for judgment rather than going directly to the principal.

One of the grievances was that it was important for boys and girls to learn how to act with one another. What the principal called a “Social Hour” would be arranges so that for about forty-five minutes after supper, boys and girls would mingle in the common lobby. Every once in a while dances would be held …

These were unbelievable concessions. …

The Strike was a success, though it probably didn’t make John and Fred any more beloved by the school administration.

© 2016 Kaweah

[1] Letter from Fred Tarrant to Dan Jensen, dated, dated 26 February 2015

[2] Letter from Fred Tarrant to Dan Jensen, dated 4 June 2015

[3] 145 West 51st Street at 7th Avenue, NE corner (Times Square)

[4] Letter from Fred Tarrant to Dan Jensen, dated, dated 22 June 2015

[5] Robert Whitstock.