VoxFairfax acknowledges the series Overlooked by The New York Times, which features the obituaries of remarkable women whose stories were not published at the time of their passing. Material from this article is from the March 27, 2019, edition.
Bessie Blount passed on December 30, 2009, at the age of 95, at her home in New Jersey. In 2008, Blount had returned by bus to her hometown in Virginia to undertake a mission to build a museum and library on the site of her elementary school to honor the community and youth who had attended school there. She had strong memories of her school years and one, in particular, pained and inspired her.
Bessie was born on November 24, 1914, later enrolling at Digges Chapel Elementary School in Hickory [now Chesapeake], Virginia, near Norfolk. Diggs was an all-black institution built after the Civil War for the children of former slaves. One day, at age 7, Bessie received a sharp rap on her knuckles from a teacher who chastised her for writing with her left hand. So, Bessie reasoned, it would be better to write with her toes or teeth—a skill she taught herself.
Her family later moved to New Jersey, where Bessie continued her education and studied nursing at a hospital founded for black medical professionals. She studied physical therapy and subsequently became a licensed physiotherapist at a hospital in the Bronx, New York. Many of Blount’s patients were WW II veterans who suffered amputations and were unable to write. Undaunted, Blount taught the veterans her personal skills for writing with teeth and toes.
At one point, a doctor at the Bronx hospital challenged Bessie to create a device so that the veterans might feed themselves. Within a year, she had patented a design for such a device. Blount continued to develop such devices, including a kidney-shaped vomit basin, still in use today. As she observed her patients’ progress in writing, she became familiar with handwriting patterns and their unique differences. This led her to another career with law enforcement: detecting forged documents for authorities in Virginia and New Jersey. She took an advanced studies course at the Document Division at England’s Scotland Yard in 1977.
Blount organized a consulting business examining documents and evidence in court cases. Along the way, she also wrote newspaper articles and engaged in public speaking, traveling around the country lecturing to civic organizations and schools about her life’s work.
Although Blount failed to launch her dream of a museum in her hometown, her many incredible accomplishments are not forgotten.