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Black History Month, as the late president Gerald Ford eloquently said in 1976, encourages Americans every February to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
Prominent black Americans like Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver often figure prominently in this discussion, whereas pathbreaking but lesser-known figures mostly get overlooked.
Like Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins.
Blind Tom may well have been one of America’s greatest musical prodigies, yet remains far too obscure in American culture and history.
Born a slave in Harris County, Ga., in May 1849, Blind Tom was unable to work the plantation owned by Gen. James Neil Bethune. He was therefore allowed to wander around freely and discover the world in a way that other black Americans of the time couldn’t have even dreamed of.
As the story goes, he was intrigued by the piano after listening to Bethune’s daughters play it. He was able to memorize pieces in a flash and, by the age of 5, wrote his first composition, “The Rain Storm.”
Bethune immediately recognized the young boy’s talent. He was moved into the family home in an adjoining room with a piano, and reportedly played for many hours each day.
As Blind Tom got older, he was loaned out to concert promoter Perry Oliver and toured the country. He was an immediate sensation, earning more than $100,000 per year and was often compared to great composers like Ludwig van Beethoven and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
He astonished audiences, and could apparently play several songs at once. He had memorized somewhere in the neighborhood of 7,000 pieces of music. His magnificent 1861 composition, “The Battle of Manassas,” beautifully fits in with other great music from the Civil War era.
His admirers included then-president James Buchanan (he was the first black American to perform at the White House) and Mark Twain.
On the surface, it sounds rather idyllic. Alas, Blind Tom’s life was anything but.
Blind Tom had several strikes against him: his race, blindness and the fact that he was, most likely, an autistic savant. For all of his natural ability in music, the author Willa Cather once described him as little more than a “human phonograph, a sort of animated memory, with sound producing power.”
He was unable to take care of himself, couldn’t communicate his own wants and needs and often spoke in the third person. Some have even suggested he wasn’t aware of the fact that he was an African American.
Moreover, Blind Tom has been called the last legal slave in America, and there may be some truth to this. He went through a series of custody battles within the Bethune family, and bounced from city to city. He served as little more than a sideshow attraction to an adoring audience, and died a pauper in June 1908.
Hence, he was never really a free man.
There’s another sad part to this tale. No original recordings of Blind Tom appear to exist. His sheet music is available, but only a small number of musicians have ever recorded his original songs. The most well-known album, “John Davis Plays Blind Tom,” was brought out in 2000. The irony? Davis, a talented musician and historian, is white.
Blind Tom’s life was a living hell — there’s no denying this. At the same time, the musical legacy that this incredible (albeit troubled) pianist born into slavery left behind is worthy of greater discussion and, in turn, national recognition.
Indeed, Blind Tom is precisely the figure we should be celebrating during Black History Month (or anytime, of course). Blind Tom Wiggins’ difficult journey and neglected accomplishments mask a classic American tale of genius, talent, determination and inspiration.