"Blind Tom" Wiggins
"Blind Tom" Wiggins
License: Public Domain

"Blind Tom" Wiggins is first African American to perform at White House

In 1860, Blind Tom performed at the White House before President James Buchanan.

A command performance before President Buchanan at the White House drew further attention and the press referred to him as the greatest pianist of the age whose skills surpassed Mozart.

In 1859, at the age of 10, he became the first African American performer to play at the White House when he gave a concert before President James Buchanan.

Tales of Blind Tom’s exploits electrified the nation’s capital.

A bevy of Southern politicians’ wives were determined to see if the marvelous claims were true and a soiree was arranged at the home of Washington doyenne, Eugenia Phillips. The slave prodigy did not disappoint, playing secondo on a four-handed Rossini arrangement he had never heard before.

A musically-minded guest by the name of Harriet Lane was so impressed that a repeat performance was arranged at her place of residence. The niece and ward of James Buchanan, America’s only bachelor president, Lane by default was America's First Lady. During her time in the executive mansion, she had staged some star-studded music receptions, although the historical significance of her next guest most likely eluded her: Blind Tom was the first African-American performer to officially grace the White House.

The only surviving account of Tom’s historic performance comes courtesy of Alabama socialite, Virginia Clay who was, at first, repelled by the “horrible grimaces” on his face. But repugnance gave way to disbelief when Tom angrily drew back and bellowed to the young lady alongside him, “You cheat me! You cheat me!” Apparently, during their duet, the girl had skipped a page of sheet music.