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Happy ending to controversy: Columbus Museum buys Blind Tom archive at auction

The controversy about the auctioning of the largest collection of artifacts related to Blind Tom has a happy ending.

Local historians who feared the late Russell County Circuit Court Judge George Greene's collection would leave the Chattahoochee Valley are relieved that the Columbus Museum is the new owner of the items documenting the life of the internationally famous 19th Century autistic savant slave, musician and composer from Columbus.

Rebecca Bush, the museum’s history curator, confirmed Thursday that the museum made the winning bid by phone on the Blind Tom lot during Wednesday’s auction at James D. Julia Inc. in Fairfield, Maine.

“This is a wonderful opportunity for us to tell the story of Tom Wiggins, who is an important figure for not just Columbus history but also American history, African-American history and people with disabilities,” Bush said. “The sense I got from the community the past couple weeks is that people have a strong sense that he should be remembered and Columbus should be the center to tell the story of his life.”

The auction house won’t release the sale price, known as the hammer price, until next week, and Bush cited museum policy for not disclosing the winning bid. But two sources told the Ledger-Enquirer the hammer price for the Blind Tom archive was $25,000. The estimated value listed in the auction catalog was between $10,000 and $20,000.

Bush noted the museum’s acquisition funds come from donations, which increased since the Ledger-Enquirer’s initial report last month about the Blind Tom archive being auctioned.

“Our community’s passion and commitment to supporting the Columbus Museum in bringing these items home was critical,” she said.

Local historians Jim Cannon, John Lupold and Billy Winn lauded the museum for its purchase. Cannon, a Phenix City coucilman, also credited a higher force.“Praise the Lord,” he said. “That is good news. It is wonderful. I couldn’t be more excited. Blind Tom was an artist before his time, self-taught and so poor, all he had was the clothes on his back.”

Winn, a member of the museum’s history committee and retired Ledger-Enquirer editorial page editor, called the Blind Tom archive “certainly moves the collections at the museum forward, and I’m proud of the museum for doing it.”

Lupold, a retired Columbus State University history professor, predicted more researchers studying Blind Tom will come to Columbus to see the archive.

“It was just logical that it remains in Columbus,” he said, “and it now increases his identification with Columbus.”

Bush expects the museum to display in a special exhibit this autumn the Blind Tom archive and other historical items purchased from the Greene collection.James Hall, the Greene family’s attorney, said in a voice mail, “The estate is pleased to hear the museum acquired the items that were acquired from the collection, particularly the Blind Tom archive. It was hoped that it would remain local, and it couldn’t have found a better home.”

OTHER ITEMS COLUMBUS MUSEUM PURCHASED FROM JUDGE GREENE'S COLLECTION

Columbus Museum history curator Rebecca Bush listed and commented on the other items from Judge Greene's collection that the museum successfully bid on during Wednesday's auction (hammer prices undisclosed):

Confederate Navy tarred canvas duffel bag: "This unused bag was made by W.S. Lloyd of Columbus to be carried by Confederate sailors. This enhances our collection of items manufactured during the Civil War in Columbus, the Confederacy’s second largest industrial center."

Civil War camp chest of Captain James R. Grousbeck, 3rd Iowa Cavalry: "This weathered chest, belonging to a member of the 3rd Iowa Cavalry, was present at the Battle of Columbus, the last significant battle of the Civil War. The top of the lid has Grousbeck’s name, rank, and unit information carved into it, and the inside of the lid has ink stains from being used as a desk. The Museum has very few artifacts related to the Battle of Columbus, so this is an excellent piece to help tell that story and also address the experience of Union soldiers."

Civil War diary of Lieutenant James Slade, 10th Georgia Volunteers: "Slade, a Columbus resident, kept this diary in 1862 and details his service in Virginia and Mississippi as part of the 10th Georgia Volunteers during the Civil War. This first-hand account of wartime service from a Columbus veteran offers great opportunities for research and discussion about local soldiers."

Confederate ribbon from first Memorial Day in Linwood Cemetery: "This ribbon is thought to have been worn by Lizzie Rutherford at a Ladies Memorial Association ceremony at Linwood Cemetery on April 26, 1866. The accompanying letter describing the event is some of the best evidence supporting Columbus’ claim as the birthplace of Memorial Day. These items enable the Museum to tell a strong story about a local event that eventually became a national holiday, and I’m particularly pleased these items will be able to illuminate that connection for Museum visitors from across the country."

Broadside of John Wilkes Booth performances: "This broadside from October 1860 announces the appearance of John Wilkes Booth in Columbus to perform at Temperance Hall in several plays, including the male lead in Romeo and Juliet. Booth’s time in Columbus is an interesting footnote to American history because the actor was accidentally shot in the leg before a performance here. Newspaper accounts of the time suggest the bullet narrowly missed Booth’s femoral artery, a wound that would have caused him to bleed out within minutes and could have altered Abraham Lincoln’s life and the course of Reconstruction. This tidbit, as well as Booth’s notoriety and role in a national turning point, make this a particularly great piece to use with school groups and should also spark name recognition with other visitors."

Columbus Confederate veterans material: "These two delegate ribbons and one delegate pin from the early 20th century were worn by members of the local Benning chapter of the United Confederate Veterans. The group was named for Henry Benning, a Confederate general from Columbus, and two of the items feature his picture. These items will help the Museum discuss the development and continuation of the Lost Cause myth in the South and will also help spotlight the post-war experiences of veterans. The Benning name is familiar to residents and many visitors to this area, and this group of items suggests how Benning remained so well-known locally between his wartime service and the naming of Camp (now Fort) Benning in 1918."

Largest mastodon tusk ever found in Chattahoochee Valley: "This tusk, 40” long and 7” in diameter, was found in Hitchitee Creek in Stewart County. This tusk helps the Museum tell the story of prehistoric life in the Valley and will complement our extensive collection of American Indian artifacts recovered from local archaeological sites."

The only lot the museum bid on but didn't win during the auction, Bush said, was the Civil War diaries of Benjamin F. Harrington, 4th Iowa Cavalry. "Harrington described the captures of Columbus and West Point at the end of the war, and the Museum was interested in presenting a first-hand account from a Union soldier for a point-counterpoint approach to these final battles. We were competitive but ultimately outbid by an unknown party."

Mark Rice, 706-576-6272. Follow Mark on Twitter@MarkRiceLE.

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