National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Born Harris County, Georgia
The musical prodigy Thomas Greene Wiggins— known as “Blind Tom”—was one of the most celebrated African American concert artists of the nineteenth century. Blind from birth and possibly autistic, Tom was only four when he began performing tunes he had heard played on the piano of the man who enslaved him, James Bethune. Tom made his professional debut as a pianist in 1857, at the age of eight, and was soon earning a fortune for Bethune with engagements throughout the country.
When the Civil War began, Tom was returned to Georgia and compelled to play benefit concerts for the Confederate cause. To protect his financial interest in Tom, Bethune obtained legal guardianship of the teenager. This effectively prevented him from ever securing his freedom. After the war, Tom continued his career, performing a demanding repertoire with skill “so startling as to amaze every listener.”