Born disabled. Born enslaved.

The fate of disable-born slaves in the American South

“The blind, lunatics, and idiots all would be a tax on the slave master,” lectured an abolitionist in the 1850s. “It would be for his interest to shorten their days.”
Co-joined twins, Millie McKoy and Christina McKoy

Co-joined twins, Millie McKoy and Christina McKoy

Few disabled children born into slavery survived into adulthood.

With no registrar of births or census information to draw on, it is difficult to ascertain what percentage of slaves were disabled, although the evidence may be conspicuous in its absence.

The Georgia Slave Narratives, a vast oral history project conducted by white interviewers in the 1930s, contains two hundred and fifty interviews with former slaves.

The only reference to disabled slave children concerns a blind brother and sister, the children of two runaways who, for years, hid out in a cave. Eventually they were recaptured and it was not long before both of the children were dead.  From illness or a pillow pressed over their faces while their parents worked in the fields? Who can say.

Another narrative tells of an intellectually disabled slave, a “half crazy,” “crack-brained” man whose sister-in-law helplessly watched as an overseer beat him to death.

Unless the slave’s disability was unusual enough to elevate them to the status of a "freak" only a handful of slave owners were prepared to take on the additional expense to feed and clothes someone they could neither work nor sell.

Millie and Christina were on such example. In 1852 the conjoined twins from North Carolina were sold as infants to a circus showman for $10,000 and displayed as the "two-headed girl" in circuses, fairs and freak shows from New Orleans to Montreal. As young children, they were stolen, retrieved and stolen again on three or four occasions, one time then whisked off the Britain.  After a three year search they were tracked down in Birmingham, England and returned to their "rightful" owner and their family in North Carolina.

The pianist Blind Tom Wiggins was another.  Tom was born blind and his mother, Charity, knew his son’s destiny was hanging by a thread.  The man who owned them, Wiley Jones, was very "disappointed,” explained Jones' grandson explained many years later. “He feared the blind boy would become a useless burden.”

Charity’s granddaughter, Elnora Walker, remembered what the implications of this “disappoint” were: “Charity always carried the newborn with her because the whites had threatened to kill him because he was blind.”

Determined to get rid of the blind baby, ten months later Wiley Jones sold Blind Tom and his family at a slave market.

A neighbor, James Bethune, purchased the family -- out of pity, he claimed. “Tom at that stage was simply regarded as an encumbrance,” he later recalled.  Little did Bethune realize that Tom was a musical genius. Over the decades to come, Tom would enrich his master; the act of kindness would prove the best deal of his life.