Disability Pride Philadelphia parade with German Parod, speaking in front of the National Constitution Center.

Black Disability History, Vol. I: Reclaiming the Black and Disabled experience

19 mins read

I’ve spent much of my formative years seeking to uncover more about the ways in which Blackness and disability intersect. Often, I found myself surrounded by nothing but elaborate stories of Blackness that were undeniably-wonderful, but all, able-bodied. 

My journey began as a series of posts on a neglected aspect of Black history that I frequently see throughout my experience. As someone who is Black, I noticed the erasure of disability from the narratives, histories, and memories of the collective struggle. 

In my search, I discovered Black Disabilities were omitted entirely or diminished as minor reference points that were not elaborated on, in further discussions. Soon, it ballooned into yet another element of history that I always knew was suppressed. What it suppressed; however, sometimes surprised me. 

One truth that shocked me is about how most disabled enslaved Africans not being liberated by the Union’s forces from plantations in the South, even after the Civil War ended, is one of them. 

Others were unsurprising and an example of an attitude that has morphed into a new chimera rather than subsided. Such as the wanton abuse and occasional murder of the Black and Disabled that now translates into the overwhelming number of disabled victims to police brutality or deaths by caregivers. Yet, these things are 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 are 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. But all discuss issues related to abuse and ableism and touch on recurring problems that we typically raise in the Disability community. With that said, they’re all necessary if people are to understand what disabled, Black  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 the 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 such as disability, misogynoir, abuse, etc., I’m naturally issuing a CW, or content warning. As I’ve said, not all narratives, histories, and memories are happy ones, but they exist to be told and remembered for when one has the spoons for it.

Bradley Lomax

Lomax, a disability rights advocate and member of the Black Panther Party speaks at a rally.

Bradley Lomax was a Black Panther who used a wheelchair due to multiple sclerosis. He also had a personal caregiver named Chuck Jackson. 

Lomax became a pivotal figure in 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, and was an avid supporter of the Independent Living Movement. 

Lomax also participated in the month-long 504 sit-ins, now-legendary civil occupation of a Federal building in the Union’s history of protest ;especially in disability rights . 

Bradly Lomax and his caregiver, Chuck.

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 in disability rights without Lomax’s activism. This sentiment transcended among Black Disabled activists who felt an absence of support 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 Black activists— 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 as well. Yet, Lomax’s work ensured that the Black Panthers in his local chapter in San Francisco were involved. In their work with disability rights, they delivered hot meals to disabled protesters that occupied the H.E.W. building for the duration of the 504 sit-ins. As well as, provided 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 Intercommunal Newspaper soon began to touch on the intersection of Blackness and Disability after the 504 sit-ins. In turn, the coverage demonstrated support by raising awareness on how disability affected Black folks. Nonetheless, there were still ableist biases that persisted among Lomax’s peers. 

However, 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.

“I’ve been thinking since I’ve been here this morning that the United States has always had its niggers,” Ericka said. “And they come in all sizes, shapes, colors, classes, and disabilities.

She continued: “The signing of 504, this demonstration, the sit-in, this beautiful thing that has happened these past weeks . . .”

Johnnie Lacy

Johnnie Lacy was a Black activist for the Independent Living Movement. She became physically-impaired after a bout with polio at the age of 19, left her mostly paralyzed. She wanted to pursue a degree at San Francisco State University 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. Persisting on, 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, her work would greatly serve to influence her activism. Lacy helped found the Center for Independent Living at Berkeley College. As well, she served as director for the Community Resources for Independent Living (CRIL) in Hayward, California; going so far as to earn grants and additional funding. During her tenure, the funding she received provided monies to 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 the integration of the mostly-white and oblivious disability rights activist movement of her time. Additionally, she heightened intra-racial understandings about Blackness and Disability when she felt segregated both racially and culturally in Black movements that often excluded discourse on Blackness and Disability. Although, she did attend several famous events held by the staple Black activists of her time, like the “Mind of the Ghetto” Conference that hosted Mohammed Ali (still known as Cassius Clay at the time) and Malcolm X. Lacy passed away 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 that she developed at the age of 12. She was one of the activists  present during the 504 sit-ins with Lomax. 

Later, Jackson would meet with officials in the President Jimmy Carter Administration. Alongside other disabled activists, they worked to implement Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 as the first explicit ban on discriminatory practices against the disabled from any programs or agencies receiving federal funding. Section 504 became the blueprint for the Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA further strengthened 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 American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities for multiple terms. While there, she did extensive work as a disability consultant, working for nonprofits and in the private sector. Eventually, Jackson would only retire at the request of her physicians decades later. 

Throughout her life, Jackson had approximately fifty surgeries, but refused to allow her health 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

Joice Heth was an enslaved Black woman who lived during the Antebellum period. She was one of many Black folks with disabilities who were displayed in infamous “freak shows” that often exaggerated their disabilities and sensationalized them to entertain the public.

The person who originally owned her, John S. Bowling exhibited her as the nurse of George Washington. She was sold two times until R.W. Lindsay, later “leased” her to P.T. Barnum who purchased the rights to exhibit Heth on August 6, 1835. Really, Lindsay sold Heth, but used the term “lease” to avoid claims of enslavement in the North. 

P.T. Barnum paraded Heth  as a 161-year-old woman who’d raised George Washington. By then Heth, much older, was mostly paralyzed, and blind. The claim, based in part on a premise Lindsay told Barnum, had met no success with Linday. But Barnum’s methods; however, earned him profits.

As part of his racist charade, Barnum went as far as to remove Heth’s teeth. He also neglected her care to make her appear physically deformed and by extension much older than she actually was. Propaganda Barnum, as he was known, and his cohorts, would also generate income by sensationalizing their experiences with Heth. In one case, when Heth’s exhibition waned, Barnum and his marketing partners said that she was not human, but a machine constructed of Indian rubber and whalebone. 

Heth would be on display, 6 days a week, sometimes for 12 hours a day. Barnum’s reinvention of Heth’s identity would inevitably mark the genesis of Barnum’s career. From his exploitative marketing strategies, Barnum made thousands through a routine she performed as part of his act until she eventually passed away.

An autopsy on Heth’s body soon proved Barnum’s claims about her were an elaborate hoax, confirming the suspicions of those who had long been skeptical of his scheme. Although Barnum often rebut by claiming Heth was still alive and touring elsewhere briefly; her body, he argued, was nothing but an elaborate fake. However, he would eventually admit to her death and would even profit from this autopsy by selling tickets to the public so they could attend it. 

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.

Harriet Tubman

Already, you know the story about her developing disabilities — likely epileptic seizures and to another extent, narcolepsy — tied to a childhood injury. You should also know about her eventual escape to Canada and decision to return and join in the liberation of other enslaved Africans. Including her multiple trips, she risked her well-being despite the bounty on her head, to later become the “Moses” of the “Underground Railroad,” a network in which she was a “conductor” for eight years. Added to Tubman’s legacy is 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 more support than their white counterparts. Her experience with disability as a Black woman was more than a footnote.

On June 24, 1908, The Auburn Citizen, a local New York-based newsletter, reported about the opening of a new home dedicated to social work. Called the Tubman House, it was more than a decade in the making. It’s function was to provide shelter to those who were Black impoverished folks, the elderly, as well as, those who became dependent upon a caregiver. The Tubman House was one of Tubman’s passions.

The Citizen reported that Tubman had done this social work out of her very home prior to founding the Tubman House. Close friends and the AME Zion Church helped her acquire the land, construct the facility, and plan 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. Howerver, 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 found by archaeologists, Tubman’s devotion to unconditionally caring for the disadvantaged in our community, both able-bodied and disabled, hasn’t. Hence, she never charged a single one of those who stayed at Tubman House a dime.

Denmark Vesey

While Harriet Tubman is perhaps the most notable person in Antebellum Black history who had seizures, she wasn’t the only one. 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 to Captain Vesey, his original owner. His seizures would eventually diminish, and he’d manage to acquire his freedom by lottery. From there, Denmark Vesey became a successful businessman. He helped found an AME church and involved himself in a conspiracy concerning a rebellion that would’ve freed enslaved Africans and sent them to the now-independent Ayiti, also known as Haiti, for protection. Few historians argue that the conspiracy 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 into freedmen. Her father was 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” or what is now known as osteogenesis imperfecta.

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. 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 more efficiently, as they’d used a small carriage prior. Suggs was ultimately able to attend school and acquire a formal education. Her triumph is especially notable given the discrimination that 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, insisting that she had a purpose she wanted to fulfill. Suggs also openly condemned the “freak shows” disabled Black people were often paraded in. Her explicit refusal to be displayed is noteworthy, given how common the practice was during her time. One tragic example of this exploitation is the “Two-Headed Nightingale” sisters Christina and Millie McKoy.

In her final years, Suggs became an author, publishing the autobiography Shadow and Sunshine. 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 vital portraits 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 North Carolina-born Black man became partially-blind in one eye from childhood scarlet fever and completely deaf a few years later. As a result, he carried a small notebook with him to communicate. 

O’Kelly first attended the North Carolina Colored School for the Deaf and Blind, working as a stable hand. But a football injury he’d later acquired would completely blind him in one eye. Nonetheless, he remained optimistic. O’Kelly began to pursue a career as a lawyer after he’d finished his primary education.

After he graduated, O’Kelly tried applying to Gallaudet, a premier university for Deaf students, but settled on Shaw University after he was rejected. He’d successfully graduated and earned 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  with a Bachelor’s in Law. More impressive, O’Kelly accomplished much of this while taking tunnel-drilling side jobs in the meantime.

O’Kelly began to teach at his former alma mater in North Carolina following the completion of his degree at Yale. Later, he opened his own private law firm, O’Kelly’s Legal Bureau. For his practice, he specialized in domestic, corporate, and real estate title cases. In spite of the obstacles he faced because of his disability and segregation, O’Kelly’s law firm thrived. He’d live a full life of 82 years, marrying Goldie Weaver in 1920.

Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins

Thomas Greene Wiggins was a Black man enslaved since childhood. Due to legal loopholes that General James Bethune exploited, Wiggins’ time in bondage included well-after the Civil War ended. 

Bethune purchased Thomas’ family at an auction. His family consisted of his mother Charity Greene Wiggins, and his father Domingo Wiggins. 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 as part of a package deal.

Modern understandings of how the mind works, based on what was recorded, revealed 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, he could do all of this, reportedly, even months afterward. 

With this ability, Thomas took little interest in anything else and found a passion in music. This is something his owners took complete advantage of by allowing him to learn the piano and write his own music for their own 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 favorite of mine — Wiggins often said that his God inspired him.

General Bethune, 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. 

Wiggins and Perry put Thomas on extensive and arduous tours in packed theatres throughout the country daily. In this tources, public fascination and obsession grew over Wiggins’ talent . This included Mark Twain, who wrote about him several times . As a result, the mentions further enriched Bethune’s coffers, culminating in a visit to perform for then-president James Buchanan. 

Ironically, the concerts were used to bolster Confederate support. After the Civil War, Thomas was taken on tours throughout Europe and other countries. He even met royalty.

Thomas Greene Wiggins never saw true freedom. At first, he was placed in an agreement that was the equivalent of indentured servitude or “management.” Near the Civil War’s end, he was given the promise of being returned to his parents at 21 and receiving a salary while under Bethune’s wing. However, Bethune later had Wiggins declared insane by the court so that Bethune 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 women made. By then, however, Thomas, who’d been denied a life outside of the business ventures of the Bethunes since youth, did not remember his mother when she arrived to meet him. Stutzbach’s promises to Charity regarding her son’s custody soon proved to be nothing more than clever schemes, and Charity eventually returned to her home in Georgia empty-handed.

Stutzbach wasted no time in pursuing business ventures of her own by having Wiggins perform all over the world for years. When the demanding schedules took a toll on his health, she put him on the Vaudeville circuit. Stutzbach exploited Thomas until he suffered 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 aspects of inspirational porn. It also shows the public normalizes systemic ableism every time someone disabled or neurodiverse is sensationalized through 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. During his career, Thomas was 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 to 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 , while ignoring that what liberated him privately, only to be used to oppress and commodify him publicly. It’s estimated the Bethunes made a profit of $750,000 off of Thomas, which would amount to millions today. In final thought, he was more than “Blind Tom,” the myth he is often remembered. He was Thomas Greene Wiggins, and he deserved so much more than he was given.

Cathay Williams

Williams was a Black woman born in Missouri to a father who was a freedman, although her mother was still enslaved. She herself was enslaved and labored on the Johnson plantation for most of her early life. Soon, 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. By “liberated,” I mean “seized from Confederate Secessionists and categorized as ‘contraband’” thanks in part to the First Confiscation Act that gave the Union the authority to do so. 

Through this act, enslaved Africans acquired were not legally considered free. Lincoln vetoed an attempt by General Fremont to free all of those owned by Secessionists in Missouri, rather 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 of disabled slaves, as I noted earlier.

Williams became a cook for the infantry of the Union Army  and is believed to have spent quite a bit of time touring with them before she finally enlisted. However, “Williams” never actually enlisted, as women were prohibited from doing so at the time. Instead, in 1866, a man named “William Cathay” enlisted instead. 

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 caught smallpox. She recovered but was hospitalized frequently afterwards 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.

During her tenure with the 38th regiment, she later gained renown in other military pursuits. Such as her service among the notorious Buffalo Soldiers who ultimately aided the Union’s expansionism. Although their legacy is hardly defined by her and her company, who never saw direct combat, to date, she was the only woman recorded to serve with the Buffalo Soldiers.

Once Williams was discharged, she went on to work as a cook at what was then Fort Union, New Mexico. Later, she 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. 

There, Williams took on a job as a seamstress, but soon found it impossible to keep a low profile given her reputation in the military. She was a local legend. A memoir about her time in the military was even published via the St. Louis Daily Times on January 2, 1876. 

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 cane for 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 — remains  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 soon. I hope they’ve ignited a genuine drive among any curious readers in the community to also reclaim it.

About the author: Mwatuangi is a Black and Disabled writer and artist that explores Disability, Race, and Mental Health in his work. He’s the guy that makes sure Wakanda’s buildings are wheelchair-accessible.

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