Every February, we honor major figures in African diasporic dance and music history. Past installments have included Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, and Dawn Hampton. This year, we’re starting off with something a little different. Instead of discussing a famous swing artist, I’m going to share the story of an even earlier figure, a man who made great achievements in music but whom relatively few people have ever heard of.
His name was Thomas Wiggins, also known as "Blind Tom." Born into slavery in 1849, his musical abilities were discovered early. A blind autistic savant, Tom often mimicked sounds, from speech to birdsong. As the story goes, he was a small child when he overheard his owner’s daughters practicing the piano and taught himself how to play by ear.
Once his owner, General John Bethune, realized he was dealing with a musical prodigy, he started holding frequent concerts to display Tom’s abilities. The posters for these concerts often highlighted the things that made him stand out: his youth, his blindness, and the novelty of a strange “Negro” boy who couldn’t dress or groom himself, but who could perform complicated scores after hearing them only once. He was marketed as an untaught genius, often in racially-charged language that relied on stereotypes.
In fact, while Thomas Wiggins was undoubtedly a rare talent, he also received daily music lessons and practiced for several hours a day. For his handlers, however, exaggerating his lack of tutelage translated to higher ticket sales.
As he started touring around the country and gained more public visibility, Tom came to occupy a strange space in popular culture, somewhere between respected concert pianist and sideshow freak. He had a prodigious memory, eventually learning some 7,000 different pieces. He could play a different song with each hand while singing a third. He could repeat entire presidential debates verbatim. Experts of the day, baffled by his combination of remarkable abilities and autistic behaviors, theorized that he might even be possessed by the ghosts of composers past. It seems that the supernatural was, for some, a more comfortable explanation than the reality of a young Black man with abundant natural talent.
Besides performing the works of others, Tom also composed original music, including songs that mimicked sounds in the environment. One piece, “The Battle of Manassas,” was a heroic depiction of the Confederate army, complete with sound effects. His Southern handlers used the piece to claim Black sympathy to the Confederate cause, to the disgust of many African American journalists. Considering his intellectual disabilities, however, it is unlikely that Tom fully understood the political implications of his work, or perhaps even the racial divisions involved.
After the end of the Civil War, the adult Tom became the subject of an intense custody battle. As he was unable to live independently, his manager, General Bethune’s son, had himself declared Tom’s legal guardian. This allowed him to maintain control of the significant cash flow Tom represented. When the younger Bethune died suddenly, his estranged wife enlisted the help of Tom’s family to gain custody. She won, but rather than return him to his family or share his earnings, she continued to exploit him just as her ex-husband had. For this reason, some newspapers of his era referred to him as "The Last American Slave." Even years after emancipation, his life was never fully self-determined.
Tom continued to perform until 1904, when poor health ended his public career. He passed away in 1908.
All in all, Thomas Wiggins is a complex figure in American history. People with developmental disabilities have rarely been treated with dignity in the public eye, which adds an extra layer of responsibility to tell his story respectfully and well. Nor does his life story follow the triumphant upward trajectory that Americans are most comfortable with. Nonetheless, “Blind” Tom Wiggins is an important part of our shared history. He was a unique and remarkable person who paved the way for countless artists and performers after him.
I first learned about Tom Wiggins as the editor of Strange Fruit, Volume II: More Uncelebrated Narratives from Black History. All of the illustrations featured here are courtesy of the author, Joel Christian Gill.