Thomas ‘Blind Tom’ Wiggins was born in Columbus, Georgia, in 1848, on a slave plantation owned by Wiley Jones. Though Tom was originally designated to be sold off or left for dead for his blindness and presumed uselessness on a slave plantation, Tom’s mother fought to keep him with the rest of his family by arranging to have herself, her husband, Tom, and her two other children sold as a group to a different master, General James Bethune.
Though the diagnosis did not exist in the nineteenth century, current historians believe that Wiggins was an autistic savant. Savant syndrome is a kind of neurodivergence in which people experience major differences between their abilities and disabilities. For example, someone can be a brilliant violinist and be unable to read, write or do mathematics. Tom showed these traits. While Wiggins’s ability to play and compose music was extraordinary, he was mostly non-speaking and used sounds and body language to communicate with others. Tom rocked, twitched, and echoed people around him.
Tom’s sensitivity to sound was clear from an early age: He would repeat others’ conversations, deliberately drag chairs around, bang pots together, and provoke his siblings to scream so he could hear the noises again and again. He seemed magnetically drawn to the piano in the Bethunes’ household. If Tom was left unsupervised, he would find a way into the house and start playing. Tom took readily to the piano at a tender age, learning how to play the piano in his master’s house at the age of four. Though General Bethune originally tried to prevent Tom from playing the piano, he learned soon enough that he could benefit from Tom’s talent and allowed him to play.
The sounds Tom heard around him — the crowing of roosters, the rhythm of everyday conversation, the sound of raindrops falling on the roof — turned into original pieces worthy of an adult composer. Tom didn’t merely play music and create new music from his environment; he felt music with the entirety of his being. He would move in time with his music, experiencing it as solidly as one would raindrops upon the skin, the sun’s rays on the face, the feeling of the earth giving way under one’s feet during a leisurely walk.
When Tom was 8, his master hired him out to Perry Oliver, a showman and concert promoter. Wiggins was promoted as something of a circus freak: an otherworldly combination of heaven-sent talent and terrifying disability. At this age, he could learn others’ compositions with an astonishing facility. He and Oliver went from town to town and state to state, netting Bethune and Oliver large sums of money. Tom was one of the highest-paid pianists of his time, earning Bethune and Oliver the modern equivalent of over one million dollars a year. In 1860, Wiggins even performed at the White House for President James Buchanan at the tender age of eleven.
Even during the Civil War, Wiggins continued to perform. During this period, the fourteen-year-old Wiggins composed ‘The Battle of Manassas’, his best-known piece. This composition combined the sonic, emotional and physical impact that the battle exerted upon those who witnessed it. For someone wrongly thought to be an ‘idiot’ and closer to animal than human, Wiggins demonstrated an intense underlying intelligence through his deep understanding of the consequences of war. He was far from a ‘mind dredged of all intelligence’ on the ‘lowest rung of humanity’, writes Dierdre O’Connell, an award-winning writer and historian. Wiggins, like all disabled people, was as human as any other person is. Tom had the same curiosity and intelligence that all people possess. Perry Oliver claimed that Wiggins was loyal to the Confederates’ cause, even though Wiggins himself had never declared any political sentiments of his own. Oliver, however, was keen to hold up a young black man presumably happy with the old order as a means to drum up support for the Confederacy.
After the Civil War, Blind Tom continued to perform, criss-crossing the United States and Europe. Tom played original compositions drawn from his detailed observations of nature and pieces by other composers. Though he appeared happy while absorbed in his piano-playing, Wiggins’s apparent joy hid the misery he experienced off the stage. He was isolated from other people when he wasn’t performing in front of an audience. Though he was technically freed after the Civil War, his ex-master’s son, John, became his manager. The money from Tom’s performances continued to go to the white people who exploited him for his talents. His mistreatment caused him to develop anxiety and depression, and he withdrew from public life after several years.
While the story of Blind Tom was ultimately tragic, we can still look to him as an example of black neurodivergent excellence. His deep connection to the world around him and his remarkable musical ability led him to create music that resonated within his own soul and the souls of others. We must remember, too, that the talents of black neurodivergent people should be nurtured without exploitation. We belong to ourselves. Tom Wiggins may not have had this freedom, but we can claim our own freedom today.