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Disabled People Were Enslaved, Too.

Updated: Jul 9, 2021

Trigger Warning: Slavery, Abuse, Death

Juneteenth; finally a federal holiday, and though a great start, it's simply that- a start. Juneteenth is a world-wide celebration to commemorate the end of slavery in the United States. Similar to July 4th ('independence day'), Juneteenth (June 19) celebrates the next step towards freedom for many people in the United States. We know that equality and fairness are not the same as justice, but how do we move forward to support those who still do not share the same freedoms promised in 1865? What parts of history are we leaving out? Who in history are we leaving out?


Black voices are still not given the space to speak, or the justice to take the space back. Black disabled people have stories that are often pushed even further to the back. When it comes to slavery and freedom, one story that is beginning to unfold is that of Blind Tom. Thomas 'Blind Tom' Wiggins was a blind, autistic pianist from Georgia, born into slavery and sold to a white family who extorted his talents for their pockets. As few disabled children born into slavery survived into adulthood, in his mother Charity's eyes, better that than death. You can purchase the book here (OConnell, 2017).


When we do hear stories, we hear them in unusual places. "Black disabled people do have a recorded history in one unusual profession. Books by Rosemarie Garland Thomson ("Extraordinary Bodies," Columbia University Press, 1996) and Robert Bogdan ("Freak Show," University of Chicago Press, 1990) report that freak shows had a high population of black disabled people" (Moore Jr, 2012).


As more Black voices are being uplifted and given the (rightful) space to speak, we can begin to hear more stories and uncover further truths. The Museum of Disability has a great resource library- Disability and the African American Experience- in which you can search by year to uncover the history behind disability and how it impacted Black individuals, with search options from 1619 through 2003. There is a lot to unpack here- for example, did you know that even asylums were segregated dating back to the 1820s? Even Harriet Tubman, a well-known activist, suffered from a traumatic brain injury (TBI). In the 1840s, census data was used to track "colored lunatics," used as propaganda against Black disabled people (Museum of Disability History, 2021).


Ableism has always been prominent in the United States, and even further so when it came to liberation. When looking back to the Civil War and Reconstruction, propaganda often focused on able-bodied men. Thus, "the experience of disabled slaves powerfully reveals the idea that freedom depended upon one's ability and potential to work." (Downs, 2008). Often, supporters of slavery focused on able-bodiedness and disability to promote ideas of the racial inferiority of black skin. Disability played a role in justifying slavery by slavery supporters, stating that "African Americans were physically better suited to work on the slave plantations in the south and that they were disabled from living freely in the north." Pro-slavery writers went as far as to suggest a greater incidence of disability in freed blacks in northern states as if freeing slaves would lead to more dependence of disability. (Turner, 2014).


Thus, while we may take the time to celebrate how far we've come, we must also take the time to remember how far we have yet to grow. Take the time to listen to stories, uplift Black voices, and remember that Black disabled voices are even further under-represented. Take the time to learn, to grow, and to remember that Juneteenth is not the solution until there is justice for those who have yet to receive it.


References


African American Slavery and Disability: Bodies, Property, and Power in the Antebellum South, 1800–1860, Journal of American History, Volume 102, Issue 1, June 2015, Page 249, https://doi.org/10.1093/jahist/jav279


Disability and the African American Experience. Museum of DisABILITY History. (n.d.). https://www.museumofdisability.org/disability-and-the-african-american-experience/.


Moore Jr., L. F. (2012, February 2). A Hidden Black History / Fresh voices tell unknown stories of special experiences. SFGATE. https://www.sfgate.com/opinion/openforum/article/A-Hidden-Black-History-Fresh-voices-tell-2946800.php.


OConnell, D. (2017, February 23). Born disabled. Born enslaved. The Ballad of Blind Tom. http://www.blindtom.org/blog/2016/12/2/born-disabled-born-enslaved.








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