Honouring the Contributions of People with Sight Loss in the Black Community
February marks Black History Month, which honours and reflects upon the legacies and incredible contributions of people who are black from the past and present. While the month is often synonymous with people like Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Jackie Robinson, there are countless others who've made a profound impact in history – including those who are blind.
While the list could go on and on, here are just a few notable individuals with sight loss who've made significant contributions to the African American community…
Sgt. Isaac Woodard
Sgt. Isaac Woodard was a decorated veteran of World War II who survived a brutal, racially motivated attack that thrust him into the centre of the civil rights movement. On February 12, 1946, Woodard was attacked while still in uniform by South Carolina police as he was taking a bus home; the beating was so severe that it left him blind in both eyes. Despite no one having been convicted of the crime, outrage over Woodard's attack helped to galvanize social justice advocates in the black community, and he is still remembered as a hero of the civil rights movement.
Arguably one of the best loved soul musicians of all time, Ray Charles was often referred to as the “Father of Soul.” Charles lost his sight at the age of seven and would later attend the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind in St. Augustine, Florida. It was there that he learned to read, write and arrange music in braille. He also learned to play an impressive number of instruments, including the piano, organ, saxophone, clarinet and trumpet.
"Blind Tom" Wiggins
Born into slavery in 1849 Georgia, "Blind Tom" Wiggins was unable to work the plantation on which he was raised because of his blindness. He was therefore allowed to pursue his own interests, and quickly became a child prodigy on the piano, writing his first composition, "The Rain Storm", by the age of five. By the time he was 10, Tom was the highest paid pianist of the 19th century. He went on to have a successful performing career throughout the United States with numerous original compositions published.
Haben Girma is an American disability rights advocate, and the first deafblind graduate of Harvard Law School. She has taken many important strides during career, including publishing her self-titled book, "Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law" which was featured in the "New York Times", "O Magazine", "People", "The Wall Street Journal" and on the "Today Show".
Marcus Roberts is an American Jazz pianist, composer, arranger, bandleader and teacher. Roberts lost his sight at the age of five, and began teaching himself to play the piano soon after. In 2012 he founded the band “The Modern Jazz Generation”, which features 12 musicians ranging in age from early 20s to 50s. He has also served as Associate Artistic Director for the Savannah Music Festival as well as the Director of the annual Swing Central high school band competition.
Stevie Wonder, who was blind from birth, is an American musician and former child prodigy. Wonder showed an incredible, early gift for music. He began taking a keen interest in music at the age of four and would later go on to learn a range of instruments, including the harmonica, piano and drums – all before he turned 10. He is known for several incredible musical hits including, “Isn’t She Lovely”, "You Are the Sunshine of My Life", "Superstition", and others.