Thomas Wiggins, nicknamed Blind Tom by his “handlers”, was the first African American man to perform at the White House.
Wiggins was born blind and autistic on May 25, 1849. He was born into a dreadful institution of American slavery in the state of Georgia. As his owner could not exploit and benefit from Thomas’ physical abilities, he took advantage of the talent that God gave to Thomas.
Having heard Thomas play the piano, General James Neil Bethune, Thomas’ owner, allowed Thomas to have open access to the piano. Soon, Thomas was perfectly regurgitating classical piano compositions and even composing original pieces of his own. Unfortunately, Thomas was not able to develop and maintain social relationships. The autism made it difficult for the blind boy to communicate his emotions and needs. Consequently, General James took full advantage of the opportunity to exploit and control Thomas’ musical gift.
James Neil Bethune and Perry Oliver, handlers of Thomas, earned upwards of $100,000 a year, which is the equivalent of $1.5 million in today’s society. Sadly, Thomas did not receive even one cent. Instead, Oliver likened Thomas to a circus act, pointing out that Thomas was a “freak.” Some of the advertisements read, “From animal to artist.” Oliver also referred to Thomas as a baboon, monkey, and gorilla.
Historians feel that Thomas Wiggins was one of the country’s most important musical artists. However, because Thomas was African American, a slave, and disabled, his musical contributions are often ignored and minimized by mainstream historians.