Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins (1849-1908)
Stage Name: DJ Tommy Tunes
When we learn about slavery, we picture the images scattered across history textbooks — hundreds of Black men and women packed shoulder to shoulder on slave ships, laborers painstakingly picking seeds out of cotton plants, the sun beating down on their backs as they work their way across vast plantations. We’ve flipped through pages upon pages of books that document through text, image and sketch this wretched system. We’ve visited museums and historic sites that share stories of enslaved persons through materials that sear the images into our minds, reminding Americans of their history’s horrific atrocity.
Imagine, though, not seeing any of it.
This week’s shuffler is Thomas Wiggins. He was born enslaved, and he was also born blind.
He couldn’t see the dehumanization, but he heard it. How did Tom imagine his surroundings when he listened to the whispers, the yelling, the sound of a whip, and the sound of a chain from a shackle? What did he picture in his mind when voices around him echoed prices per person? Or when he heard the beat of a drum, the keys of the piano from the big house, and harmonized voices in song?
He lived during a dark era in complete darkness. Yet, Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins became one of the most profound piano players of the nineteenth century. This week, we’ve chosen to share this blind prodigy’s story. And, of course, his playlist which he told us he wants everybody to listen to right now:
Born blind, enslaved and possibly on the autism spectrum — though it did not yet exist — in 1849, Thomas Wiggins of Georgia had absolutely no economic value. He was worth, in the eyes of those who owned enslaved people, less than anything at your local dollar store. It meant his death was as good as certain.
The world told Tom, “Welcome to the Terrordome,” and Tom said “STFU” right back as years later, at the age of 10, he became the first African-American to perform a concert at the White House. The President was James “the Bachelor” Buchanan whose lame legacy led to the Civil War.
Wiley Jones, the “Hell Bound (01)” owner of Tom Wiggins and his family, withheld food and clothing from them because of Tom’s blindness. Wiley, thinking that there was no economic value to keeping a blind man, put the whole family up on the auction block. But, feeling charitable toward her son, Tom’s mother Charity convinced their neighbor, General James Bethune, to purchase the whole family. This way, they could all stick together and Tom’s life could be spared.
At their new home, Tom couldn’t contribute much to the work of plantation life due to his lack of vision. He typically spent his days feeling his way around the fields. His family and friends began to notice that he mimicked sounds around him. If someone screamed, Tom screamed. If a dog barked, Tom attempted to bark. A bird chirped, Tom chirped too. Eventually, Tom could repeat other people’s conversations word-for-word. This acute awareness of his surroundings, coupled with his inability to verbally express his own wants and needs, was his way of engaging with his environment and what many historians refer to as evidence for his probable autism. During his wanderings and mimickings, Tom eventually found his way to the music room within the Bethune family’s big house.
The Bethunes had seven children who were all musical in some way, whether instrumentally or vocally. They had a piano that Tom could hear the children playing daily. No matter how frequently the Bethunes removed him from the music room, Tom found his way back to tickle the piano keys. On days he snuck into the music room, Tom took a seat at the piano and played songs from memory. Those had to have been moments of serenity and purpose for Tom; a time during which he could connect and focus on sounds coming from one source instead of the overwhelming “Solid Wall of Sound” he was used to hearing. Mary Bethune, one of the seven kids, eventually became Tom’s piano teacher. Though these ebonies and ivories weren’t living together in perfect harmony, General Bethune did eventually realize he had a musical enigma on his hands and sought to capitalize on that A$AP (Rocky).
General Bethune did not encourage Tom to learn piano from Mary so that he could grow his natural musical talent. He was looking to once again make a profit from someone else’s work and talents. Tom could not reap the harvest from the fields, but he sure could reap major money for the Bethune family as he toured and performed the piano for sold-out crowds. His owner took ownership of his talent.
At eight years old, Tom performed his first concert. He was managed by a showman named Perry Oliver who promoted him and eventually used profits from his shows to support the Confederacy (cue “Use Me” by Bill Withers). Oftentimes at his performances, attendees were brought on stage to play a tune which Tom was then expected to play back. This wasn’t an opportunity for Tom to engage with the audience and to show off his talent like musicians do at concerts today when they play around imitating each other on stage. This was their attempt to mock Tom and test what he, as a blind musician who was more talented than any of them, was capable of and potentially throw him off his game.
The more he toured, the more popularity he gained. He was marketed more so for his physical appearance rather than his musical talent. He was pictured on each poster and described as “Black” and “Blind,” or even “a gorgon with angel’s wings.” This was his reality as an enslaved musician. While others were auctioned off naked and afraid on blocks at ports, Tom was dressed “So Fresh and So Clean” and walked onto his block: the stage. Enslaved lives were ruled by emotional, psychological and emotional control. Tom didn’t let that stop him from learning and playing — then again, neither did his owners.
Over the course of his lifetime, he memorized thousands of pieces of music, composed tunes of his own and learned to sing melodically too. He wasn’t fully aware of the racist and oppressive world around him; however, he was able to communicate what he heard and felt through music. Music has always been a mirror to what is happening in society, and Tom’s songs aren’t excluded from that just because he was an outcast. His songs echoed sounds from the environments around him as he traveled across the country on tour. This was during the Civil War, so think drums, musket shots and soldiers marching in line. One piece, “Battle of Manassas,” is about the Confederate army, and it did not go over well with black audiences. Ever eager to propagandize, his showman, Perry, advertised the song as Tom’s unwavering loyalty to the Confederacy.
Touring all across the United States and Europe over the Civil War era, Tom became a household name. People had never seen anything like him, and they all wanted a shot at experiencing his one-man show. His performances were unlike anything the country’s white folk had ever experienced: Tom would mix piano virtuosos with some fancy footwork and throw in a banjo diddy, as a treat. But though Tom was a man of many talents, who would likely earn even the approval of Simon Cowell today, he was also the victim of unrelenting racism. He was likened to an animal, on display for all to ogle at, but never fully appreciate.
Tom never saw a penny from the fruits of his labors. He was deemed “insane” in 1872, and all his money was frittered away by his owner, General Bethune’s son, John. Though Tom was eventually emancipated as a result of John and his wife Eliza’s divorce, he was not able to happily live out his final years. He died from a stroke in 1908 at the age of 60, and he never got to see his mother again after his emancipation.
Countless stories like Tom’s exist across the U.S., buried deep into the crevices of history so as not to stain the U.S.’s past. But in order for future generations of Americans to move forward and make reparations for those harmed, we must confront our past’s blemishes. Tom’s story is one of those blemishes, putting the inhumanity of the slave system and the era’s appalling racism on full blast. But we need that. The truth hurts, but hiding the truth will only hurt more.