History of pianist recorded by former U professor

Krista Poplau

Just as a classical pianist works to perfect a symphony, former University music professor Geneva Southall has worked for 25 years to perfect the history of an individual she calls “a musical genius.”
Southall, a small elderly woman with a storyteller’s voice, said she doesn’t feel taxed after the decades of research she has conducted on 19th-century pianist Thomas Greene Wiggins, commonly known as Blind Tom.
“It became a labor of love,” she said.
Southall signed her most recent love Tuesday at Augsburg College for fans. The book “Blind Tom, the Black Pianist-Composer: Continually Enslaved” is the third volume in Southall’s trilogy on Blind Tom, a disabled black pianist.
Blind Tom’s musical style resembles 19th-century composer Frederic Francois Chopin, Southall said.
From the beginning, her goal has been to correct historical inaccuracies about Blind Tom, including claims that he was an idiot savant.
To accomplish her goal, Southall brought the pianist’s story to the forefront by recounting his musical endeavors through words.
“I’ve lifted him up into the mainstream,” she said.
Aside from researching and writing, Southall has continued her involvement in the University’s Afro-American and African Studies department since retiring in 1992.
Mary Chisley, the department’s executive secretary, described Southall as being dedicated to African-American studies.
“Anyone who can chair a department for six years has to be dedicated,” she said.
Chisley, who helped with the book series, said Southall has continued to be a mentor to both students and other department chairpersons since her departure.
Current interim chairwoman Rose Brewer described Southall as a reservoir of information for the department and a good historian.
During her years working side by side with the author, Brewer said Southall’s commitments included music and the community as well as the Afro-American and African Studies department.
Southall stresses the importance of community outreach, particularly for African-Americans, because it is important for young people to have social ties.
“We’ve become mentors to young people,” she said about successful African-Americans who give back to the community.
Southall’s role as a mentor has endured throughout her 74 years.
Southall went beyond the duties of a regular chairwoman and pushed her students to succeed, said Antoinette Ziegler, former secretary for the African Studies department and currently a principle accountant for Accounting and Budgets at the College of Liberal Arts.
“If they got an ‘A,’ they worked for it,” Ziegler said. “She didn’t give grades for just coming to class.”
She added Southall played an integral role in her continued education. While working in the department, Southall constantly encouraged Ziegler to finish her degree.
“When she sees potential in you, she makes you take the next step,” Ziegler said.

Krista Poplau welcomes comments at [email protected] She can also be reached at (612) 627-4070 x3221.