Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield

Known as the "Black Swan," Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield was a famed singer in the 19th Century. Public Domain

 Overview

Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, known as “The Black Swan,” was considered the most well-known African-American concert performer of the 19th Century. African-American music historian James M. Trotter lauded Greenfield for her "remarkably sweet tones and wide vocal compass".

Early Childhood

The exact date of Greenfield’s date is unknown yet historians believe it was in 1819. Born Elizabeth Taylor on a plantation in Natchez, Miss., Greenfield moved to Philadelphia in the 1820s with the mistress, Holliday Greenfield.

After relocating to Philadelphia and becoming a Quaker, Holliday Greenfield freed her slaves. Greenfield’s parents migrated to Liberia but she stayed behind and lived with her former mistress.

The Black Swan

Sometime during Greenfield’s childhood, she developed a love of singing. Soon after, she became a vocalist at her local church. Despite a lack of musical training, Greenfield was a self-taught pianist and harpist. With a multi-octave range, Greenfield was able to sing soprano, tenor and bass.

By the 1840s, Greenfield began performing at private functions and by 1851, she performed in front of a concert audience. After travelling to Buffalo, New York to see another vocalist perform, Greenfield took the stage. Soon after she received positive reviews in local newspapers who nicknamed her “African Nightingale” and “Black Swan.” Albany-based newspaper The Daily Register said, “the compass of her marvelous voice embraces twenty-seven notes each reaching from the sonorous bass of a baritone to a few notes above even Jenny Lind’s highs.”  Greenfield launched a tour that would make Greenfield the first African-American concert singer to be recognized for her talents.

Greenfield was best known for her renditions of music by George Frideric Handel, Vincenzo Bellini and Gaetano Donizetti. In addition, Greenfield sang American standards such as Henry Bishop’s “Home! Sweet Home!” and Stephen Foster’s “Old Folks at Home.”

Although Greenfield was happy to perform at concert halls such as Metropolitan Hall, it was to all white audiences.

As a result, Greenfield felt compelled to perform for African-Americans as well. She often performed benefit concerts for institutions such as the Home of Aged Colored Persons and the Colored Orphan Asylum.

Eventually, Greenfield traveled to Europe, touring throughout the United Kingdom.

Greenfield’s acclaim was not met without disdain. In 1853, Greenfield was set to perform at Metropolitan Hall when a threat of arson was received. And while touring in England, Greenfield’s manager refused to release funds for her expenses, making it impossible for her stay.

Yet Greenfield would not be dissuaded. She appealed to abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe who arranged for patronage in England from the Duchesses of Sutherland, Norfolk and Argyle. Soon after, Greenfield received training from George Smart, a musician with ties to the Royal Family. This relationship worked in Greenfield’s benefit and by 1854, she was performing at Buckingham Palace for Queen Victoria.

Following her return to the United States, Greenfield continued to tour and perform throughout the Civil War. During this time, she made several appearances with prominent African-Americans such as Frederick Douglas and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper.

Greenfield performed for white audiences and also for fundraisers to benefit African-American organizations.

In addition to performing, Greenfield worked as a vocal coach, helping up and coming singers such as Thomas J. Bowers and Carrie Thomas. On March 31, 1876, Greenfield died in Philadelphia.

Legacy

In 1921, entrepreneur Harry Pace established Black Swan Records. The company, which was the first African-American owned record label, was named in honor of Greenfield, who was the first African-American vocalist to achieve international acclaim.