Black History: Special Delivery!!
Thomas Greene Bethune Wiggins (1849 – 1908) was born to enslaved parents who lived on a Georgia plantation. The family was owned at first by Wiley Jones but was then sold to General James Bethune in Columbus, GA. Wiggins was blind from birth and was also considered to be autistic. He showed an early aptitude for music and also was said to have a great memory. By the age of 4 he was able to play the piano and made his musical concert debut at the age of 8, in Atlanta, GA. Wiggins was hired out as an enslaved musician. The fee for his performance was $15,000. He would be the first African American to perform at the White House for President James Buchanan in 1859, when he was 10 years old. Two of his original piano pieces “Oliver Galop” and “Virginia Polka” were published in 1860. During the Civil War, his musical talents were used to raise funds for Confederate relief efforts. By 1865, Wiggins was 16 years old and was considered an “indentured” servant to General Bethune. His musical prowess continued to grow allowing him to play more difficult musical compositions from composers such as Bach, Chopin, Liszt, Beethoven and Thalberg. Of course, the income from his performances was controlled by his General Bethune. It is reported that Wiggins may have made as much as $750,000 in income for General Bethune during his lifetime. Wiggins had the remarkable ability to play musical pieces after hearing them only one time. Wiggins was also able to memorize and other writings in foreign languages.
It was falsely advertised that Wiggins was “unlearned”. However this was untrue. He was tutored by a professor of music who traveled with him. Some historians suggest that Wiggins was often described as simple or even childlike. However, there is some debate that Wiggins was not this way at all and this was merely a persona that was fabricated to further the belief that, as a black man, he was inferior. This debate is lost to history. No matter his mental capacity, there can be no debate that he was a musical genius.; who like so many others was exploited for the financial gain of his owners.
Wiggins was taken on tour to Europe where he received praise from musical critics, being hailed as the “eight wonder of the world”. These endorsements would catapult Wiggins into international fame and position him to be further exploited for economic gain. Wiggins toured with his owner in the United States and Canada and spent summers at a farm in Virginia throughout his career. “Custody” of Wiggins and control of his income was disputed in court. Eliza Bethune, the ex-wife of General Bethune’s son was awarded custody of Wiggins. Wiggins’ mother was also part of the law suit and custody battle as well. However, she did not win “custody” of her son or control of his income. Wiggins gave his final performance in 1905 and died in 1908 at age 59 in New Jersey.