Hidden History: Blind prodigy almost never played a note


In September the nation celebrated the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C.

Designed by architect David Adjaye, the building pays homage to the intricate ironwork crafted by enslaved African Americans in Louisiana, South Carolina, and elsewhere.

Inside its walls visitors journey from the horror of slavery to the inspiration of modern day heroes. Many prominent Black Americans are featured inside. But you’ll also find stories of the hidden history America, stories of those who are often forgotten, like Blind Tom Wiggins Greene.

“Tom Wiggins was a piano, musical prodigy”, said Dwandalyn Reece, Curator of Music and Performing Arts at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Born in 1856 in Columbus, Georgia, Thomas Wiggins was a slave, born blind with mental challenges.

“He might have been autistic”, said Reece.

The world came to know him as Blind Tom and he composed more than a thousand compositions. But he almost never played a single note. His owners thought his disabilities made him useless and wanted him killed.

“He was unable to work in the fields or do any kind of hard labor,” Reece said.

But his mother pleaded with Colonel James Bethune, to buy her entire family to spare Blind Tom’s life. The colonel agreed and it turned out to be an act of compassion that would earn the Bethune family a fortune.

Blind Tom had an encyclopedic memory and could mimic sounds.

“He could master anything. Languages, sounds of animals. What Tom Wiggins was able to do was incorporate the sounds and everything he has heard and experience and put it in his own compositions,” said Reece.

At the age of 3, while playing in the slave master’s house, Tom found a piano and played his first piece. By the age of 5 he was performing for audiences around the world.

Inspired by his slave owner’s son describing the Confederate victory at Bull Run, Tom composed his most famous piece, “The Battle of Manassas.” In it, he used the ivories to dramatize the sound of the marching soldiers and the booming cannons.

Whites at the time, thought Tom’s music was supporting the Confederate Army, other slaves thought he was a traitor.

“There is an interesting relationship here that the music and what he is creating is benefiting the same system that’s oppressed him,” said Reece.

The oppression of Tom kept going after slavery ended. Bethune made a deal with Tom’s mother. She got a place to live and a little money, while the Bethune’s kept control over Tom and his music.

After more than 40 years on stage, Tom died in 1908 at the age of 59. Although hidden in history, his music still has an impact today.

“Blind Tom laid the ground work for probably played off in jazz and jazz played off in hip hop. So there is a continuity of cultural tradition,” said Reece.

Blind Tom lived before audio or video recording existed and he never wrote down his music. Now classical artists are recording his work.

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