John William "Blind" Boone - Missouri School for the Blind
Backstory and Context
John William "Blind" Boone was born in May 1864. His mother, Rachel Boone, was a former slave liberated by federal troops in Missouri. She became a cook for the Union army, and it was during her time with the troops that she met Boone's father, a bugler in the army (according to Rachel). After the end of the Civil War, Rachel and Boone moved to Warrensburg, Missouri, but at 6 months old, Boone contracted "brain fever," or what was most likely cerebral meningitis. In order to save his life, the doctor who treated Boone removed his eyes and sewed his eyelids shut.
As Boone grew older, Rachel and their neighbors noticed that he had a certain talent for music. He learned to play the harmonic and the tin whistle, picking up by ear any tune he heard and repeating it perfectly. Life wasn't easy being blind, though, and, in 1872, Boone was sent to St. Louis to attend the Missouri School for the Blind in order to learn a trade that would provide him with a living.
In 1872, the Missouri School for the Blind was located at Delmar Blvd and 20th Street in the Mill Creek Valley region of St. Louis. The building housed students and staff and consisted of classrooms, offices, dormitories, a bakery, cellars, music practice rooms, infirmaries, and a gym. While Boone was at school, he was taught the broom trade to give him a skill that would provide him with income. It was music, however, that kept his interest. Boone soon befriended a white student who was learning to play the piano, and Boone began taking lessons from him. Boone's music kept him distracted from his other studies, but when Boone returned to the school after a vacation, the new superintendent forbade him to learn music because he believed that black students and white students did not merit the same privileges. Boone began leaving the school to play elsewhere in St. Louis until, eventually, he was dismissed from the school.
Boone made his way back to Warrensburg, Missouri and began playing piano and harmonica in various towns in the area. After a few unlucky attempts with crooked managers, Boone eventually met John Lange Jr. Lange arranged a deal with Boone and his mother to create a touring company centered around Boone's talents. For a while, the company struggled, but after a few years, the Blind Boone Concert Company became famous across vast regions of the United States. He became the first African American to record ragtime music on piano rolls. Despite his success, though, Boone felt that his struggles indicated that his talents, and not his disability, defined who he was, and his motto became, "Merit, Not Sympathy, Wins."
In 1889, Boone married the younger sister of Lange, Eugenia, and they moved to Columbia, Missouri. Boone continued touring for many years, even after the death of Lange in 1916. By 1927, touring and performing were taking their toll on Boone, and he officially retired in June to live the rest of his life in Columbia with his wife. Boone died of a heart attack shortly after retirement, in October 1927. Recordings of his music have survived to today, and Boone remains one of the founding fathers of ragtime music.
The house that Boone lived in in Columbia, Missouri has been preserved and interpreted by the John William Boone Heritage Foundation. Though he spent only a few years in St. Louis, Boone is still remembered for his time spent playing in saloons throughout Mill Creek Valley. The Missouri School of the Blind moved to a new location in 1906, and the former location was torn down during the Mill Creek Valley urban renewal projects in the 1960s and 1970s. Today, newer buildings (some of them empty) and a parking lot occupy the land. No plaque or marker indicates that the land was once home to the Missouri School of the Blind or that one of the fathers of ragtime learned his trade in St. Louis.
Wright, John A. Discovering African American St. Louis: A Guide to Historic Sites, 2nd ed. St. Louis: Missouri Historical Society Press, 2002.
"John William "Blind" Boone." The State Historical Society of Missouri: Historic Missourians. The State Historical Society of Missouri. Accessed March 23 2020. https://historicmissourians.shsmo.org/historicmissourians/name/b/blindboone/#section9.
"The History and Life of John W. Blind Boone." Blind Boone Home. John William Boone Heritage Foundation. Accessed March 23 2020. https://blindboonehome.org/history-of-the-foundation/.
"MSB History." Missouri School for the Blind. Missouri School for the Blind. Accessed March 23 2020. https://msb.dese.mo.gov/History.html.
Batterson, Jack A. Blind Boone: Missouri's Ragtime Pioneer. Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 1998.
Barile, Mary Collins and Christine Montgomery. Merit, Not Sympathy, Wins: The Life and Times of Blind Boone. Kirksville, Missouri: Truman State University Press, 2012.