Thomas Handasyd Perkins (1764–1854), known as T.H. Perkins, was a Boston Brahmin and a major figure in Boston as both a merchant and philanthropist. In the daguerreotype profile portrait above, he is about 85 years of age, has white short white hair and sideburns, and is dressed in dark attire. T.H. Perkins has a serious expression on his face.
T.H. Perkins was born in Boston in 1764, growing up during the American Revolution. As a young man, he used a small bequest from his grandfather (a successful merchant) to build his own trading business with his brother James. Their initial trading in the early 1780s included both enslaved people in Santo Domingo (now Haiti) and goods produced by their labor (cotton, sugar, and rum). In the late 17980s, the brothers began trading ginseng and furs in China. After the Santo Domingo slave revolution of 1791, the Perkins brothers stopped trading in Haiti. They began to bring food into revolutionary France as well as helping to get a 14-year-old George Washington Lafayette safely to the United States.
Around 1815, the Perkins brothers began to trade opium, a common medical ingredient of the time, in China. When the opium trade was banned in 1817 by the Chinese government, Perkins and other merchants smuggled it into the country. This highly lucrative and illegal trade is credited with making Perkins one of the wealthiest men in America at the time.
Well-known in Massachusetts during his lifetime, Perkins served in the Massachusetts Senate and House of Representatives between 1805 and 1817 and was named as Colonel of an honor guard battalion for the governor. He invested widely in regional businesses including the first American commercial railroad, canals, textile mills, and lead and iron mines. After his brother died in 1822, he turned over the trading business to other members of the family and focused on philanthropy including the Boston Athenaeum, Massachusetts General Hospital, McLean Hospital, and the Museum of Fine Arts.
T.H. Perkins supported Dr. John Dix Fisher’s desire to establish a school for the blind in Boston in a number of ways. He was one of the signers of the original charter and an early member of the Board of Trustees. In 1832, Samuel Gridley Howe, the school’s first director, asked if the rapidly growing school could use T.H. Perkins’ mansion on Pearl Street in South Boston. When the school outgrew that space in 1837, Howe asked T.H. Perkins if the school could sell the mansion and use the proceeds to buy a former hotel in South Boston.
T.H. Perkins agreed but required the school to promptly raise $50,000 from the community to demonstrate support for the school. The money was raised within two months, and the school moved to the new site. In 1839, the school took on his name in appreciation for the support Perkins had offered both financially and in the larger community. A choir from the school performed at T.H. Perkins’ widely-attended funeral in 1854 when he died at the age of 89. The school moved to Watertown in 1912.
Today, Perkins School for the Blind acknowledges that our school’s founding financially benefitted from both the slave trade and opium smuggling, and acknowledges the pain caused by this, particularly to those in Black and Chinese communities.
The founding of Perkins highlights complex issues around slavery, race, and profit derived from the exploitation of enslaved and marginalized people. As we look to our future, it is our responsibility to acknowledge our past. Perkins is committed to confronting the truth about the people and history of our institution so as not to perpetuate narratives that obscure or diminish inhumane treatment of anyone or any group of people.
Arnott, Jennifer. “Thomas Handasyd Perkins.” Perkins Archives Blog. Perkins School for the Blind, Watertown MA. 2022.