Black Disability History, Vol. I: Reclaiming the Black Disabled Experience
I’ve spent much of my life in my formative years seeking to uncover more about the ways that Blackness and Disability intersect, but often found myself surrounded by nothing but elaborate stories of Blackness, undeniably-wonderful, but all able-bodied. It all began as a series of posts on a neglected aspect of Black History that I frequently see throughout my experience as someone Black: the erasure of Disability from the Narratives, Histories, and Memories of collective struggle.
Disabilities were omitted entirely or diminished as minor reference points that were not elaborated on further in discussions. Soon, it ballooned into yet another element of History that I always knew was suppressed. What it suppressed sometimes surprised me.
The truth about most disabled enslaved Africans not being liberated by the Union’s forces from plantations in the South on principle, even after the Civil War had ended, was one of them. Others were unsurprising and an example of an attitude that had morphed into a new chimera rather than subsided, such as the wanton abuse and occasional murder of the Black and Disabled that now translated into the overwhelming number of disabled victims to police brutality or deaths by caregivers. Yet, these things were still a fraction of all I’ve come to learn in my search to understand History as a Black and Disabled person, even Civil Rights History re: Disability.
So, I thought I’d share some of it here, recalling the names of those who’d survived — and those who hadn’t — alongside those who were still alive and making changes today. You’ll hear about the latter soon. Some of these stories are triumphant, and happy. Others are very tragic and sad, discussing issues related to abuse and Ableism, touching on recurring-problems that we typically raise in the Disability community. That said, they’re all necessary if people are to understand what Black Disabled and/or Neurodiverse folks experience.
The stories I will share, however, are not the only stories, nor are they the only important ones, so don’t limit yourself. Use them to begin your own personal journey through one of many neglected aspects of Black History. Then, because plenty of us are still around and very much present in society, get to know us for yourselves.
Lastly, as some of these entries will talk about very serious and potentially triggering subjects re: Disability, Misogynoir, abuse, etc., I’m naturally issuing a CW warning. As I’ve said: not all Narratives, Histories, and Memories are happy ones, but they exist to be told and remembered when one has the spoons for it.
Let’s begin with these ten Narratives.
Bradley Lomax was a Black Panther who had Multiple Sclerosis and used a wheelchair. He had a personal caregiver named Chuck Jackson — also a Black Panther — and was one of the pivotal figures ensuring that the Black Panthers more explicitly included disability rights in their praxis, which wasn’t one of the initial focuses in their social activism. He’d always included it within his activism, however, and was an avid supporter of the Independent Living Movement. Lomax also was a participant in the 504 sit-ins, a now-legendary civil occupation of a Federal building in the Union’s history of protest — especially re: disability rights — that lasted about a month.
Kitty Cone, one of the organizers involved in the 504 sit-ins, once said she doubted the Black Panthers ever would’ve been as active without his activism, and this sentiment is mostly supported by the absence of support Black Disabled activists experienced from most of the Black Intelligentsia in the Disability Movement writ-large, not including her Whiteness. While there were obvious cultural nuances, Ableism still transcended conventional racial barriers and impacted Blackness equally as much.
The overwhelming silence from most of them — exempting those with proximity to Disability — illustrated just how little disability rights were viewed as pertinent to mainstream Black Social Activism at the time. It was seen as a “white” issue, helped in no small part by the movement being overwhelmingly dominated by white activists also. Yet, Lomax’s work ensured that the Black Panthers in his local chapter in San Francisco were involved, delivering hot meals to the disabled protesters that occupied the H.E.W. building for the duration of it, as well as other supplies and physical support by helping to escort the disabled protesters.
While there were other activists — Ed Roberts, Bruce Oka, Margaret Irvine, Joyce Ardell Jackson, Judith Heumann, Ron Washington, and Dennis Billups, to name a quaint few — who’d play their own roles, Lomax and his caregiver Chuck were undeniably critical to ensuring the success of the 504 sit-ins with the BPP’s continued support. Writings and speeches in the Black Panther newspaper also soon began to touch on the intersection of Disability and demonstrated support re: raising awareness about how it affected Black folks, although there were nonetheless still ableist biases that persisted among Lomax’s peers. Ericka Huggins best illustrated the newfound and rising inclusion of Black disability rights in addition to other focuses in Black liberation with the victory rally speech she delivered, documented in the Black Panther newspaper.
Johnnie Lacy was a Black activist for the Independent Living Movement, physically-impaired after surviving a bout with polio that left her mostly paralyzed. She wanted to pursue a degree at San Francisco in speech pathology but was initially denied, barred by the directors of the program because of her disability; there were no explicit protections for the disabled at the time. She’d graduate in 1960 but would not be allowed to participate in the ceremony.
Eventually, Lacy built her own personal philosophy in her studies shaped from her experiences as a Black and Disabled woman that would greatly serve to influence her activism. Lacy helped found the Center for Independent Living at Berkeley as well as served as Director for the CRIL in Hayward, California, going so far as to earn grants and additional funding, acquire a building, and oversee plans that resulted in the construction of its own independent office. There honestly wouldn’t be a CRIL as we know it without her involvement.
Lacy’s leadership also contributed to integrating the mostly-white and oblivious disability rights activist movement of her time and heightened intraracial understandings about Blackness and Disability when she felt segregated both racially and culturally, although she did attend several famous events held by the staple Black activists of her time, i.e. the “Mind of the Ghetto” Conference that hosted Mohammed Ali(still known as Cassius Clay at the time) and Malcolm X. She passed in 2010, but an oral database on her History is still available for people to read.
Joyce Ardell Jackson
Joyce Ardell Jackson was a disabled Black activist with lifelong rheumatoid arthritis (initially developing at 12) that was also present during the 504 sit-ins, the protests that saw the civil occupation of the H.E.W. building in San Francisco for about a month by disabled activists, including Bradley Lomax, a Black Panther with MS.
Jackson would later meet with Carter’s administration alongside other disabled activists to implement 504 with the success of their demonstration, as the first explicit bans of discriminatory practices against the disabled would finally be enforced among any programs or agencies receiving federal funding, becoming the blueprint that would eventually shape the ADA. The ADA would further strengthen protections for the disabled when it was finally enacted in 1990.
After the success of the 504 sit-ins, Jackson served on the national board of the ACCD for multiple terms and did extensive work as a disability consultant, working for nonprofits and in the private sector. Jackson would only retire at the request of her physicians decades later. Jackson endured no less than fifty surgeries during her struggle throughout her life, but refused to allow it to quiet her resilient spirit, often-referring to herself as the “Bionic Woman”. Instead of Inspiration Porn, however, let’s recognize her persistence as an unflinching commitment to a cause many have viewed as separate from the push for Black liberation: the valuing of disabled — especially Black and Disabled — lives.
Joice Heth was an enslaved Black woman who lived during the antebellum period and was one of many Black folks with disabilities who were portrayed in infamous “freak shows” and other displays that often exaggerated their disabilities and sensationalized them to entertain the public.
The person who originally owned her (R.W. Lindsay) eventually sold her (called a “lease” to avoid claims of enslavement in the North) to none other than P.T. Barnum, who paraded Heth- now much older, mostly paralyzed, and blind — as a 161 year old woman who’d raised George Washington, based in part on a premise Lindsay had met no success with. Barnum’s methods, however, earned him profits.
As part of his racist charade, Barnum went as far as to remove teeth from Heth and neglect her care to make her appear physically deformed, and by extension much older than she actually was. He made thousands exploiting her through a routine she performed as part of his act until she eventually passed away.
Autopsy soon proved Barnum’s claims about Heth were an elaborate hoax, confirming the suspicions of those who had long been skeptical of his scheme, although he‘d often rebut by claiming Heth was still alive and touring elsewhere briefly; her body, he argued, was nothing but an elaborate fake. However, Barnum would eventually admit to her death and would even profit from this autopsy by selling tickets to the public so they could attend it. Propaganda Barnum and his cohorts would also generate by sensationalizing their experiences with Heth would inevitably mark the genesis of Barnum’s career.
The suffering Heth experienced is one of countless examples of the ways that Ableism has also been institutionally intertwined with Systemic Racism and the devaluation of Blackness, something I’ve had the displeasure of hearing characterized as mutually-exclusive many times. Examples of the propaganda used to sell the myth of Heth’s origins can be found here.
While Harriet Tubman is perhaps the most notable person in antebellum Black History who had seizures, she wasn’t the only one. None other than Denmark Vesey also experienced seizures for a significant period of time. The frequency that he had them was the primary reason he was returned from the sugar plantation in Ayiti he was forced to labor at to Captain Vesey, his original owner. His seizures would eventually diminish, he’d manage to acquire his freedom by lottery, become a successful businessman, help found an AME church, and of course, become involved in a conspiracy concerning a rebellion that would’ve freed enslaved Africans and sent them to the now-independent Ayiti for protection; a conspiracy a few historians have now argued may have been manufactured to stoke anti-Ayisyen sentiment amid fears of rebellion.
Elizabeth “Eliza” Gertrude Suggs
Elizabeth Gertrude Suggs was a disabled Black woman born to freedmen; her father was none other than the Rev. James Suggs, a minister who’d once served in the Union army, and his wife Malinda, Suggs’ mother. Elizabeth was the youngest of eight children, and with her birth would come unexpected complications: a series of fractures led doctors to diagnose her with “Rickets”, what is now recognized as osteogenesis imperfecta.
True to her diagnosis, Suggs was constantly in pain throughout her childhood and experienced fractures that could manifest from things as simple as handshakes; a sister once accidentally broke one of Elizabeth’s arms attempting to do so. The sensitivity that her bones possessed ultimately stunted her growth and also made it impossible for her to walk, along with a lot of other things mobility-related that we often take for granted.
Suggs, however, persisted, and with the aid of her family, devised a means to successfully manage her condition: a chair was eventually donated to Elizabeth, allowing her mother and older sister Kate to carry her around much easier than previously, as they’d used a small carriage prior to this. Suggs was ultimately able to attend school and acquire a formal education, and her triumph is especially notable given the discrimination Black and Disabled people experienced at the time.
Elizabeth eventually became active in the Temperance Movement, attending various services and events where she’d share her own faith, insistent that she had a purpose she wanted to fulfill. Yet Suggs would also play another role, openly-condemning the “freak shows” those with severe disabilities like hers were often paraded in. Her explicit refusal to be displayed is noteworthy, given how common the practice was during her time; the “Two-Headed Nightingale” sisters Christina and Millie McKoy are another tragic example of this exploitation.
Suggs eventually became an author in her final years, publishing the autobiography Shadow and Sunshine about her life; she also wrote poetry that was featured within it. As it’s the primary source used to glean any information about her life — complete with photographs documenting her family members alongside her experiences with them — Elizabeth’s writings serve as a vital portrait of Black and Disabled life during a time when such Narratives, Memories, and Histories were suppressed.
Roger Demosthenes O’Kelly
Roger Demosthenes O’Kelly has a storied place in Black History that unfortunately is often-overlooked by many. The NC-born Black man eventually became partially-blind in one eye from childhood scarlet fever and completely deaf a few years later. He’d soon carry a small notebook with him to communicate. As a result, O’Kelly first attended the NC Colored School for the Deaf and Blind, working as a stable hand; a football injury he’d later acquire would completely blind him in one eye, but he remained optimistic. O’Kelly began to pursue a career as a lawyer after he’d finished his primary education.
Initially, O’Kelly tried applying to Gallaudet after he graduated, a premier university for Deaf students, but settled on Shaw University after he was rejected. He’d successfully graduate and earn his license to practice Law in 1908, becoming what is widely-considered the first Black Deaf lawyer in the country. After he completed his educational pursuits at Yale, he was the first Black Deaf person to graduate — in his case, with a Bachelor’s in Law — and accomplished much of this while taking tunnel-drilling sidejobs in the meantime.
O’Kelly began to teach at his former alma mater in NC after scoring his degree from Yale, then later made a name for himself with his own private law firm, O’Kelly’s Legal Bureau. Specializing in domestic, corporate, and real estate title cases, O’Kelly’s law firm thrived during a time of segregation, even despite the obstacles he faced because of his disability. He’d live a full life of 82 years, marrying Goldie Weaver in 1920.
So you know the story already, about her developing disabilities — likely Epileptic seizures and to another extent, narcolepsy — tied to a childhood injury, her eventual escape to Canada and decision to return and join in the liberation of other enslaved Africans, her multiple trips risking her well-being despite the bounty on her head, later becoming the “Moses” of the “Underground Railroad” network she was a “conductor” of for eight years, her time in the Union Army as “General Tubman”, a spy, cook, nurse, lecturer, community organizer, suffragette….
and disability advocate.
Yes, the Harriet Tubman was a major proponent of disability-related social work, especially for Black folks with disabilities who collectively were often-denied even less support than their white counterparts were. Her experience with Disability as a Black woman was more than a footnote.
On the 24th of June, 1908, The Auburn Citizen, a local NY-based newsletter, reported about the opening of a new home dedicated to social work(called “Tubman House”). Tubman House was more than a decade in the making, as sheltering the Black impoverished, the elderly, as well as those who became dependent upon a caregiver, had marked one of her passions.
The Citizen reported that Tubman had done this social work out of her very home prior to founding Tubman House. Close friends and the AME Zion Church helped her acquire the land, construct the facility, and plans were on the way for them to assist in management of it. When Tubman finally was able to give remarks at the celebration of Tubman House’s grand opening, she said this:
“I did not take up this work for my own benefit, but those of my race who need help. The work is now well started and I know God will raise up others to take care of the future. All I ask is united effort, for united we stand divided we fall.”
Tubman’s social contributions weren’t limited to the more common themes historians discuss such as her radical anti-Slavery activism, Union military service, Black women’s suffrage (her speech at the first NACW conference is notable), or even her other work addressing poverty, which included extensive donations to churches, schools, and nurseries along with other things. The disabled were never excluded (note: some archaic terms are present in the quote):
“All these years her doors have been open to the needy… The aged… the babe deserted, the demented, the epileptic, the blind, the paralyzed, the consumptive all have found shelter and welcome. At no one time can I recall the little home to have sheltered less than six or eight… entirely dependent upon Harriet.”
Although the extent of Tubman’s financial status has been reconsidered with new information excavated by archaeologists, Tubman’s devotion to unconditionally caring for the disadvantaged in our community, both able-bodied and disabled, hasn’t: she never charged a single one of those who stayed at Tubman House a dime.
Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins
Thomas Greene Wiggins (he was given the surname “Bethune” after his original master) was a Black man enslaved since childhood, including well-after the Civil War ended, through legal loopholes that General James Bethune exploited; Bethune was a man who’d purchased Thomas’ family(consisting of his mother Charity Greene Wiggins, and his father Domingo Wiggins) at an auction. As his nickname suggests, Thomas was born blind, and was spared from an early death in a time when it was common to kill disabled Black infants. When his parents were purchased, the original owner decided to give Thomas away to Bethune instead.
Modern understandings of the mind based on what was recorded about him reveal Thomas was also neurodiverse. He was extremely talented and possessed absolute pitch: the ability to recall, identify, and/or replicate any sounds heard, in his case reportedly even months afterward. He took little interest in anything else and found a passion in music, something his owners took complete advantage of by allowing him to learn the piano and write his own music, although the Bethunes appear to have done it mainly for amusement. His talent is believed to be the one thing that kept him from being murdered as a toddler. When asked where he got his inspiration for each musical piece he did — “The Rainstorm” is a fav of mine —Wiggins often said that his God inspired him.
General Bethune, a military veteran-turned-propagandist (his newspaper would be among the first to explicitly support Secessionists) eventually brought Thomas to concert halls to perform his songs when he was older, as well as perform various feats to entertain the public. He made tens of thousands off of Wiggins alongside Perry Oliver, his manager, on extensive and arduous tours throughout the country that involved multiple performances in packed theatres daily. Public fascination and obsession over Wiggins’ talent — this included Mark Twain, who wrote about him several times — further enriched Bethune’s coffers, culminating in a visit to perform for then-president Buchanan, concerts where some of his music was used to bolster Confederate support, and later, after the War, tours throughout Europe and other countries, even to meet royalty.
Thomas Greene Wiggins never saw true freedom. He at first was placed in an agreement that was the virtual-equivalent of indentured servitude (“management”) near the Civil War’s end with the promise of being returned to his parents at 21 and a salary while under Bethune’s wing, but Bethune later had Wiggins declared insane by the court so that the Bethunes could retain custody of him. Family drama between the Bethunes and the widow (Eliza Stutzbach) of their son John eventually led to Thomas being reunited with his mother Charity by court order.
However, Thomas’ freedom from the Bethunes would be for naught; he was instead made the ward of Stutzbach with the assistance of his mother Charity as part of an agreement the two had made. By then, however, Thomas, who’d been denied a life outside of the business ventures of the Bethunes literally since youth, did not remember his mother when she arrived to meet him. Stutzbach’s promises to Charity re: her son’s custody soon proved to be nothing more than clever schemes, and Charity eventually returned to her home in GA empty-handed.
Stutzbach wasted no time in pursuing business ventures of her own by having Wiggins perform on the Vaudeville circuit. Stutzbach exploited him until he suffered what’s now considered to be a stroke, which ended his public life. He’d later pass away after suffering a second one in Stutzbach’s home.
Thomas Greene Wiggins’ Narrative is important because it illustrates the dehumanizing Inspiration Porn and Systemic Ableism that the public normalizes every time they sensationalize someone disabled or neurodiverse with a talent or accomplishment that interests them. All throughout Thomas’ public life, the media and popular cultural critics repeatedly infantilized him because of his race, disability, and autism, often caricaturing him as a tortured soul or spirit trapped within a Black man’s body, which they commonly-referred to as intellectually-inferior and incapable of being talented naturally.
Mark Twain himself obsessed over Wiggins and went as far as to compare him to an archangel in a human “prison”. Thomas was an international musical celebrity renowned for his accomplishments, and simultaneously a prisoner the public also regarded with disdain and revulsion for being wired differently.
This ableist society overwhelmingly asks us to look at Wiggins’ History in a vacuum and ignore how he was treated. It asks us to marvel at his performances — Thomas composed dozens of original songs, many which have been reproduced by pianists — and ignore that what liberated him privately was used to oppress and commodify him publicly: it’s estimated the Bethunes made a profit of $750,000 off of him, which would amount to millions by contemporary standards. He was more than “Blind Tom”, the myth he is often remembered as during this month. He was Thomas Greene Wiggins, and he deserved so much more than he was given.
Cathay Williams was a Black woman born in Missouri to a father who was a freedman, although her mother was still enslaved. As a result, she herself was enslaved, as was custom during that time, and she labored on the Johnson plantation for most of her early years. Soon, however, things would change when the Union military invaded Jefferson, the city closest to the Johnson plantation.
It’s assumed, based on oral accounts, that Williams was among the enslaved Africans who the Union “liberated” from the plantations in Missouri, and by “liberated”, I mean “seized from Confederate Secessionists and categorized as ‘contraband’”. This was all due to the First Confiscation Act that gave the Union the authority to do so. Those acquired through this weren’t legally considered free; Lincoln vetoed an attempt by General Fremont to free all of those owned by Secessionists in Missouri, in fact, arguing for what he called a “gradual” emancipation. Thus, those who fell under Union control performed various tasks for the military. (The Second Confiscation Act would actually free any fugitive slaves that reached the Union Army and supply them with rations if they agreed to labor as compensation, with exceptions I noted some time ago re: most disabled slaves)
Cathay became a cook for the Union Army — specifically Infantry — and is believed to have spent quite a bit of time touring with them before she finally enlisted… except, “Williams” never actually enlisted, as women were prohibited from doing so at the time. A man named “William Cathay” enlisted instead, in 1866. Williams managed to pass her physical inspection primarily because the military didn’t do thorough exams, and she applied for a three-year term under the pseudonym, eventually being assigned to the 38th Infantry. Only two people — a relative and a close friend, both in the military — knew who “William Cathay” really was and are believed to have covered for her.
Some time after enlisting, Williams hit some bad luck when she caught smallpox. She recovered but soon experienced frequent hospitalizations afterward as new health problems began to manifest and her secret was discovered. Her superior Captain Clarke honorably discharged her as a result of her disability. Williams would earn the distinction of being the first Black woman to serve in the Army and — during her tenure with the 38th regiment— later gained renown in other military pursuits, such as her service among the notorious Buffalo Soldiers whom ultimately aided the Union’s expansionism, although their legacy is hardly-defined by her and her Company never saw direct combat. She was the only woman to serve with the Buffalo Soldiers.
Once she was discharged, Williams went on to work as a cook at what was then Fort Union, NM and later settled in Colorado, trying her hand at marriage. It didn’t fare well; Williams’ husband turned out to be trash, and after a dispute that saw him arrested for theft, she moved on to the city of Trinidad. Williams took on a job as a seamstress, but soon found it impossible to keep a low profile given her reputation in the military. A memoir about her time in the military was even published via The St. Louis Daily Times. She was a local legend.
Later on, the symptoms that Williams suffered from for much of her life worsened and she applied for disability benefits when she was hospitalized again as a result, only to be denied. Years later, she was formally diagnosed as diabetic and a neuralgiac. Her condition had progressed to the point that she’d had her toes amputated — likely from gangrene — and used a support in order to walk.
Yet, despite her severe impairments and declining health, Williams was still denied disability benefits when she applied again. Note that women had received such pensions before, so her request wasn’t unusual nor unprecedented. Little is known about Williams after this; it’s assumed she passed away shortly afterward, but her death — even her burial place — remain unknown to History. Instead, Williams now has a monument in her Memory.
So ends the first collection of Narratives, Histories, and Memories I’ve cultivated in my personal journey to understand my roots as someone Black and Disabled. I’m sure I’ll have more to share with my infinitesimally-small audience soon. I hope they’ve ignited a genuine drive among any curious readers in the community to also reclaim it.
Boster, Dea H., PH.D. “Useless”: Disability, Slave Labor, and Contradiction on Antebellum Southern Plantations. Review of Disability Studies: An International Journal Volume 7, Issue 3 & 4 (2011).
Downs, Jim. “The Continuation of Slavery: The Experience of Disabled Slaves During Emancipation.” Disability Studies Quarterly, Vol. 28, №3(Summer 2008). http://dx.doi.org/10.18061/dsq.v28i3