Monday, May 25, 2009

Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins, Pianist Who Played At White House As A Slave, Born May 25, 1849

[Blind Tom, The Black Pianist-Composer: Continually Enslaved; Geneva Handy Southall; Scarecrow Press (2002)]

Thomas Greene Wiggins was born May 25, 1849 to Mungo and Charity Wiggins, slaves on a Georgia plantation. He was blind and autistic but a musical genius who had a phenomenal memory. In 1850 Tom, his parents, and two brothers were sold to James Neil Bethune, a lawyer and newspaper editor in Columbus, Georgia. Tom was fascinated by music and other sounds, and could pick out tunes on the piano by the age of four. His concert debut in Atlanta took place when he was eight years old. In 1858 Tom was hired out as a slave-musician, at a price of $15,000. In 1859, at the age of 10, he became the first African American performer to play at the White House, for President James Buchanan. His piano pieces “Oliver Galop” and “Virginia Polka” were published in 1860. 

During the Civil War he was back with his owner, and proceeds from his concerts were donated to the Confederate relief effort. By 1863 he played his own composition, “Battle of Manassas.” By 1865, 16-year-old Tom Wiggins, now “indentured” to James Bethune, could play difficult works of Bach, Chopin, Liszt, Beethoven, and Thalberg. He also played pieces after one hearing. Blind Tom Wiggins became an internationally recognized performer. By 1868 Tom and the Bethune family lived on a Virginia farm in the summer, while touring the United States and Canada the rest of the year, averaging $50,000 annually in concert revenue. James Bethune eventually lost custody of Tom to his late son's ex-wife, Eliza Bethune. Charity Wiggins, Tom's mother, was a party to the suit, but was bitterly disappointed when she did not win control of her son or his income.

Wiggins gave his last performance in 1905. He died three years later on June 13, 1908 at the age of 59 at his manager’s home in Hoboken, New Jersey. The Ledger-Inquirer newspaper published an article by Sandra Okamoto on Oct. 9, 2008: “The long-awaited Columbus Walk of Fame will be dedicated at 4 p.m. Nov. 4 at the Liberty Theatre Cultural Center, 823 Eighth Ave. The first three honorees are pianist Thomas 'Blind Tom' Wiggins; Gertrude Pridgett, who is better known as Ma Rainey and the Mother of the Blues and opera singer Fredye Marshall.” [Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins is profiled at, where a complete Works List by Prof. Dominique-René de Lerma can be found]

No comments: