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Tracing the Story of Tom Wiggins, the Celebrated Pianist, Using Historical Newspapers

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This is a guest post written by Devon Burger, a Stanford University undergraduate and the Library of Congress 2016 Liljenquist Family Fellow.

Tom, the blind Negro boy pianist, only 10 years old, 1860
“Tom, the blind Negro boy pianist, only 10 years old, 1860”

I first stumbled across an image of Tom Wiggins  when looking for images of African Americans during the Civil War, but I didn’t pay much attention to him until two days later when I saw the same piece of sheet music displayed at the National Portrait Gallery. From the description that accompanied the music, I learned that “Blind Tom,” born Thomas Greene Wiggins, was a musical savant born blind and into slavery. He toured across the country, performed for President James Buchanan in the White House at just ten years old, and when his owner, Colonel James Bethune, offered his talents to the Confederacy, he held concerts to raise money for the war.[1]

From there, I began to research. I discovered that as a toddler, Wiggins was able to play pieces from memory after listening to the Bethune children’s piano lessons. Colonel Bethune served as Wiggins’ manager when he discovered the boy could fill an auditorium, and before long, began hiring him out to promoters. Although the 14th Amendment formally ended slavery in 1868, the Bethunes procured guardianship of Wiggins, and he remained with the family until his death in 1908. His career spanned five decades, and his concerts and the sale of his sheet music earned his guardians a sum  equivalent to millions of dollars today.

When This Cruel War is Over. Composed by Blind Tom. Arranged by K.L. 1888
When This Cruel War is Over. Composed by Blind Tom. Arranged by K.L. 1888

Students can learn more about Wiggins and practice evaluating sources and exploring biases, purpose, and audience. First, ask students to consider the advertisement posted in the Evening Star. Ask them what they can tell about the author and audience of the advertisement based on the language. In particular, focus them on the way the pianist is described in the advertisement. What does that language tell us?

Then layer in the Yorkville Enquirer concert description and Iowa State Bystander obituary and ask students to expand their thinking. Why and for whom might these articles have been written? Direct students to compare and contrast them. How is Wiggins described here, and how do the descriptions from all three articles compare? How is his relationship to the Bethunes described? Why might each word have been chosen? What do different words evoke? What does this tell us about the source as well as the time period?

Students can also draw from Wiggins’ story to consider whether slavery truly ended with the 14th Amendment. Invite your class to study the portrait of Wiggins. Notice that it is copyrighted by John G. Bethune in 1880—twelve years after the 14th Amendment freed slaves. Was Wiggins free? Invite them to research other ways that African Americans were denied rights even after they were legally free, such as sharecropping and grandfather voting clauses.

Students may also examine or even play examples of his sheet music to better understand his compositions and performances.

What did your students find most interesting in the story of Tom Wiggins?



[1] From the National Portrait Gallery


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