Born in 1849, Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins’ master General James Neil Bethune thought a blind slave was a useless slave.
But as soon as young Tom effortlessly took to the family’s piano - replaying an advanced piece by memory at age 4, Bethune’s greed took over.
By age 8, Tom was “loaned” to a tour organizer named Perry Oliver, who forced the child prodigy to tour a grueling four-concerts-a-day schedule before nationwide audiences - making $100,000 a year off his labor.
Though Tom would go on to play some 7,000 memorized pieces before audiences that included President James Buchanan (a White House first as a Black performer), he lacked an advocate for his health and well-being. After decades of performing on command, Tom put everyone on notice!
The Bethune family exploited Tom’s physical dependence on caretakers, but he knew his power lay in his willingness (or lack thereof) to play.
In his later years, he flat out refused to be a made into a freakish side show anymore.
His abusers had no choice but to let him spend his final days enjoying the basic dignity he was entitled to all along.
Although he was forced to surrender his earnings as the highest paid pianist in the 19th century to his owner, no one can deny his gifted impact on music.
While no recordings survive of Tom, his legacy lives on through vintage advertisements and critical praise for his original sheet music.