The year was 1851, and new voices were ascendant in America. The first edition of the New York Times was printed that September. In November, Melville published Moby-Dick. Stephen Foster wrote the minstrel song “Old Folks at Home,” in which a fictional black narrator longs for a mythical “old plantation.” Actual former slave Sojourner Truth delivered a brilliant extemporaneous speech at the Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio; it entered history as “Ain’t I A Woman?”
Into this swirl of change stepped a singer named Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield. In October 1851 she gave a performance in Buffalo, New York, and it caused a massive stir: she was the first black woman to ever appear there in concert. In a twist on Jenny Lind’s nickname the Swedish Nightingale, a reporter from the Buffalo Commercial Advertiser dubbed Greenfield the “Black Swan.” Greenfield carried that epithet to her grave. Then as now, her musical and professional identity would be irrevocably, indelibly linked with the color of her skin.
In 1773 a privileged white woman named Elizabeth Holliday married a privileged white man named Jesse Greenfield in Philadelphia. By the early 1790s the Greenfields had relocated to Mississippi, and upon Jesse’s death, Elizabeth inherited his estate, including his slaves.
In 1811 she married a fellow plantation owner by the name of Benjamin Roach. But something about her new situation proved untenable, and she divorced Roach in short order. Ultimately she returned to Philadelphia, the city where she’d first been married, choosing to manage her Southern holdings from afar.
She converted to Quakerism and made a decision that would prove consequential to the history of American music and race relations: she would free, not sell, her slaves. Some came to Philadelphia, while Greenfield offered others free passage to Liberia. Eighteen ultimately took her up on that offer. One was a woman named Anna. According to nineteenth-century reporting, Anna was both white and Seminole, and had been or was in a relationship with an African man. She had recently given birth to a little girl named Elizabeth. For whatever reason, Anna chose to emigrate to Liberia without her child, leaving the baby in the care of her wealthy former mistress instead. Mrs. Greenfield offered to pay Anna’s return passage if she ever wanted to come back to America. She apparently never did. If additional correspondence occurred between former master and slave or mother and daughter, no record of it has survived.
Young Elizabeth’s date of birth is uncertain. She once gave court testimony that she’d been born in 1817, but various sources claim dates ranging from 1809 to 1826: a devastating reflection on how easily elements of slaves’ identity could simply vanish. She’d been born on the Greenfield plantation near Natchez, Mississippi, but she was freed and brought to Philadelphia at such an early age that it seems likely she had no memory of living in the South. But she must have been acutely aware that it was only due to the decision of one white woman that she grew up in an elegant three-story brick house in Philadelphia rather than in the hot, humid, hopeless cotton fields of Mississippi.
In one sense, Philadelphia was a haven. It boasted one of the largest populations of free blacks of any American city, and some fugitives and freedmen were able to make careers there. But it wasn’t a paradise by any stretch of the imagination; even here, racism and resentment often boiled over. Public schools were segregated. African American businesses were often targets of vandalism and destruction. In 1838, when Elizabeth was a young woman, the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society raised $40,000 and built the magnificent Pennsylvania Hall, which was to be the site of all their future meetings. It stood for a mere three days before being burned to the ground by an angry mob (which went on its fury to destroy a black church and a black orphans’ shelter). In its official report on the attack, the city government reported that abolitionists had incited violence by encouraging “race mixing.”
So Elizabeth may not have been enslaved, but she was certainly constrained by the poisonous atmosphere surrounding her. In 1833, with the support of her former mistress, she attended Clarkson School, a private school run by Quakers. She also began realizing a passion for music, teaching herself guitar, harp, piano, and voice. Of course, given the dangers associated with accepting her as a student, no white teacher dared to officially accept her into his or her studio. So she got creative, studying alone and seeking informal lessons from family friends, all of whom were charmed and amazed by her talent. (Nineteenth-century biographies, meant for consumption by self-satisfied white readers, liked to emphasize the role that her former mistress and her friends played in her musical development, casting them as sympathetic angelic benevolents, all the while skimming over the reasons their support was so necessary in the first place.)
Elizabeth returned to her childhood home to take care of Mrs. Greenfield, who died an elderly woman in 1845. Mrs. Greenfield, strong-willed as ever, took care to write detailed legal documents dictating her wishes for her sizable estate, which was worth $177,000 (the rough modern equivalent of $4.3 million) at the time of her death. Although she’d left instructions that Elizabeth was to be the beneficiary of a modest $100 per year annuity, which would provide a much-needed cushion of financial security, there were other heirs to consider, and Elizabeth’s income from her inheritance remained in legal limbo for over ten years.
In addition to the stress of mourning the only parent she’d ever known, Elizabeth suddenly found herself in an economically vulnerable position. Out of necessity and aptitude she turned to teaching to support herself. Nineteenth-century sources usually jump from Mrs. Greenfield’s death directly to the start of her concert career, but in between, she spent five years teaching.
Eventually, however, for whatever reason, Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield decided to leave Philadelphia and move to Buffalo, New York. As the legend goes, she sang on a Lake Seneca steamer while traveling, and her voice immediately attracted a following of wealthy white Buffalo women, including the wife of a man named General Potter. The family, like her supporters in Philadelphia, encouraged Elizabeth to develop her musical gifts, and by 1851, a group of influential Buffalo businessmen decided to sponsor a public performance.
This proposed concert immediately became a lightning rod for controversy, not only for hostile white people, but for black reformers, too. An African American lecturer named William F. Johnson contacted the white president of the Buffalo Musical Association, insisting that the Association integrate the hall during Elizabeth’s performance. The Association refused. A note in the advertisement even read “The gallery will be expressly reserved for the accommodation of persons of Color, who may wish to attend the Concert.” Undaunted, Johnson gathered support from leaders of local black churches and then turned to Greenfield herself to ask her to refuse to perform. It is difficult to imagine what she must have thought and felt at the request – she was the first female African American concert singer to attempt a performing career, and the rules were as yet unwritten – but she ultimately decided to take the opportunity and to perform. Despite Buffalo’s large black population, only two dozen African Americans attended the concert, and they were all restricted to the gallery. Concerts in America would remain segregated for generations to come.
If Greenfield was particularly stressed or anxious over the extra-musical aspects of her groundbreaking performance, it didn’t show: reviews were startlingly positive. It became clear that she should at least investigate the possibility of embarking on a wider tour. Although some evidence suggests that she may have explored signing with two African American men as promoters, she ultimately turned to a well-connected, albeit racist, white man named Colonel J.H. Wood.
Wood was an associate of P.T. Barnum’s and a former museum manager. (A few years later he’d return to his roots and establish the Chicago Museum, collecting and then haphazardly displaying such sensational artifacts as Daniel Boone’s rifle, a 96-foot-long whale skeleton, and mummies once owned by Joseph Smith.) Not surprisingly, Wood was much less interested in the social, cultural, and political elements of Greenfield’s career and identity, and much more interested in the money that she could bring him. To be fair, he had good reason to see dollar signs. A few months earlier P.T. Barnum had parted ways with Jenny Lind after the first leg of her wildly successful American tour; Lind earned Barnum at least half a million dollars, the rough equivalent of fifteen million today. Although it seemed doubtful that Greenfield could ever be as financially successful as Lind had been, courtesy of American racism, Wood was certainly willing to see how far he could push the question. In the process, he didn’t mind marketing her more as a circus attraction than a serious artist.
Regardless of what Greenfield thought of his strategy, after she signed the contract, she was in no position to object to any of his plans. She had little say in the specifics of her concert arrangements, especially when it came to hall integration. Murmurs of disapproval over her choices followed her. Nevertheless she embraced every opportunity that Wood secured for her, traveling all around New England and the Midwest.
It was risky enough to perform in those locations; touring in or even near the South, on the other hand, could have been catastrophic. It wasn’t unheard of for free black people to be kidnapped and then sold into bondage. (Indeed, one Wisconsin review of a Greenfield concert mentions the possibility: “Any moment she could be removed to the south and into slavery!”) In 1841 musician and free man Solomon Northup accepted a job performing at a circus in Washington, D.C., then, after being drugged, awoke to discover that he’d been sold into slavery. His experiences served as the basis for the slave narrative Twelve Years A Slave, published in 1853 and adapted for the screen in 2013.
On her tour, Greenfield startled her wealthy white audiences by her choice of repertoire. She avoided minstrel songs that played into dehumanizing stereotypes and instead sang operatic selections from Donizetti, Bellini, Verdi, and other European composers, as well as ballads and hymns. To show off her extraordinary range (roughly three and a half octaves), she would often sing parts written for men and women, which both amazed and unnerved her listeners. As was customary for the era, she would feature other performers on her recital program, in addition to an accompanist, but she also frequently sang and played piano simultaneously.
Reviewers didn’t know how to process this performer who moved so fluidly between worlds: black and white, rich and poor, educated and self-taught, male and female, slave and free. Many articles covering her tour were unqualified raves. But another common reaction was disbelief or scorn, especially of her appearance. One Detroit newspaper wrote, “The Swan is a plain looking, medium sized, woolly headed, flat nose negro woman, and no one would suppose there was any more enchantment…in her than a side of leather.” Many male critics hit upon a particular solution: they closed their eyes so they could enjoy her talent while avoiding the work of reconciling that talent with their own preconceived notions about her identity. “Upon the suggestion of another, we listened to her without looking toward her during the entire performance of ‘The Last Rose of Summer’ and were at once and satisfactorily convinced that her voice is capable of producing sounds right sweet.”
In addition to the criticism from white male newspapermen, Greenfield also received criticism from white female fashionistas, who fretted that her style of dress was not elegant enough. At least one woman wrote an entire letter to Greenfield packed with sartorial suggestions. To modern eyes this attempt at micromanaging comes across as staggeringly patronizing, and although of course it was, the woman’s reasoning for it rings true: “I have said this much in relation to your dress, because I know how important it is that, in the midst of all the prejudice against those of your colour, that your appearance should be strikingly genteel.”
A common refrain in the press coverage was wistfulness at Greenfield’s lack of formal training. More than one writer advanced the opinion that if she could only study with a first-rate teacher, Greenfield could rival or even surpass the greatest singers in the world. The New York Daily Tribune suggested that she leave the country in search of training and a friendlier audience: “We advise Elizabeth Greenfield to go to Europe and there remain.”
The idea had been percolating for a while; she clearly had the ambition and the ability. All she lacked was money. That obstacle was soon overcome. On 7 March 1853 she sang again in Buffalo at a benefit concert. On the 31st, a few days before she boarded a ship for Britain, she made her concert debut in New York City.
Her New York performance was auspicious. She sang at the Metropolitan Hall, a massive venue that Jenny Lind had recently conquered. However, despite the historic nature of the concert and the astronomical number of available seats, no black people were allowed to attend. An advertisement for the event in the New York Times read pointedly that “No colored persons can be admitted as there is no part of the house appropriated for them.” Even knowing that black people wouldn’t be in the audience, many white New Yorkers protested the very principle of her performance. Black people were also upset that they couldn’t see one of their own make history. In the end, so many threats were made that a police presence in the lobby became a necessity. Greenfield tried to smooth things over by explaining her contractual obligations. “I regret that you have been debarred from attending the concert to be given at Metropolitan Hall this evening, but it was expressly stated in the agreement for the use of the hall that such should be the case.” She ultimately agreed to perform a second time specifically for black church congregations. The proceeds from this second concert would go to African American charities.
When the concert finally got underway, it began in a painfully uncomfortable fashion. As a reporter for the New York Herald wrote:
It was easy to see, from the good humor depicted on the countenance of all, that the matter was looked upon as decidedly the best joke of the season… The Swan was timidly led forward to the front of the stage by a little white representative of the genus homo, who seemed afraid to touch her with even the tips of his white kids, and kept the Swan at a respectable distance as if she were a sort of biped hippopotamus. The audience laughed at the attitude of the gentleman usher and still applauded with all their might.
Orator and activist Frederick Douglass was scathingly critical of Greenfield’s decision to sing:
We marvel that Miss Greenfield can allow herself to be treated with such palpable disrespect; for the insult is to her, not less than to her race. She must have felt deep humiliation and depression while attempting to sing in the presence of an audience and under arrangements which had thus degraded and dishonored the people to which she belongs… She is quite mistaken if she supposes that her success, as an artist depends upon her entire abandonment of self-respect… We warn her also, that this yielding, on her part, to the cowardly and contemptible exactions of the negro haters of this country may meet her in a distant land in a manner which she little imagines.
On a certain level it must have been a tremendous relief for Greenfield to leave America, which she did on 6 April 1853. Unfortunately, more trouble was yet to come. The man who she had signed with to promote and manage her in Britain (identity unknown) backed out of the deal at the last minute, leaving her without a penny or prospects. But ever resourceful, she went to visit Lord Shaftesbury, who gave her an introduction to his lawyer. She also connected with the Duchess of Sutherland, Mistress of the Robes to Queen Victoria and a passionate abolitionist. And on the sixth of May she met a fellow American: Harriet Beecher Stowe, who was fresh off from writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Stowe wrote of her first encounter with Greenfield:
Among others came Miss Greenfield, the so-called ‘Black Swan.’ She appears to be a gentle, amiable, and interesting young person. She has a most astonishing voice… S.C. sat down to the piano, and played while she sang. Her voice runs through a compass of three octaves and a fourth. This is four notes more than Malibran’s. She sings a most magnificent tenor, with such a breadth and volume of sound that, with your back turned, you could not imagine it to be a woman.
Having garnered the favor of Stowe and her privileged white abolitionist friends (at the time, American abolitionism was a very popular cause amongst the British nobility), Greenfield was able to make her mark. That said, reading Stowe’s other writings about Greenfield, it is difficult for modern readers to stomach her twin attitudes of condescension and self-congratulation. It is clear that Stowe, whether consciously or not, viewed Greenfield as a prop to be put on display to demonstrate her and her allies’ virtue.
From this breakfast we returned to dine at Surrey parsonage; and, after dinner, attended Miss Greenfield’s concert at Stafford House… The choice set of the elite were there. Ladies in demi-toilet and bonneted. Miss Greenfield stood among the singers on the staircase, and excited a sympathetic murmur among the audience. She is not handsome, but looked very well. She has a pleasing dark face, wore a black velvet headdress and white carnelian earrings, a black mohr antiques ilk, made high in the neck, with white lace falling sleeves and white gloves. A certain gentleness of manner and self-possession, the result of the universal kindness shown her, sat well upon her. Chevalier Bunsen, the Prussian ambassador, sat by me. He looked at her with much interest. ‘Are the race often as good looking?’ he said. I said, ‘She is not handsome, compared with many, though I confess she looks uncommonly well today.’
Miss Greenfield’s turn for singing now came, and there was profound attention. Her voice, with its keen, searching fire, its penetrating, vibrant quality, its ‘timbre’ as the French have it, cuts its way like a Damascus blade to he heart. It was the more touching from occasional rusticities and artistic defects, which showed that she had received no culture from art… Had she culture equal to her voice and ear, no singer of any country could have surpassed her. – Sunny Memories of Foreign Lands
As potentially uncomfortable as they may have been to make, the connections with these benefactors ultimately resulted in a tremendous honor: a command performance in front of Queen Victoria, which Greenfield gave on 10 May 1854. Her accompanist was a man named Sir George Smart, an organist and composer whom she appears to have taken instruction from.
One element of the impact of Greenfield’s British sojourn was summed up by the London Advertiser on 16 June 1854: “Apart from the natural gifts with which this lady is endowed, the great musical skill which she has acquired, both as a singer and an instrumentalist, is a convincing argument against the assertion too often made, that the Negro race is incapable of intellectual culture of a high standard.”
Greenfield may have been continually, simultaneously isolated, criticized, rejected, loathed, feared, fawned over, condescended to. But she also clearly played an important role in shifting many audiences’ cultural perceptions of the artistic abilities and humanity of black people. In Ohio her performance even forced one journalist to admit his own destructive racism in public: “We know the natural prejudice that we all have against her color, and it is very difficult to divest one’s self entirely of them and criticize fairly and justly in such a case.” Greenfield may never have experienced fairness or justice in her reception, but she certainly sparked a deeply necessary self-examination for thousands of listeners across America and Britain.
In the summer of 1854 Greenfield returned to the States. She continued concertizing intermittently, sometimes to support herself and sometimes to support charitable causes. (In the mid-1850s she risked going as far south as Baltimore to concertize.) She also began turning her attention to teaching. Sometimes the two callings went hand-in-hand, as this Buffalo Morning Express article from May 1867 attests:
Mrs. Greenfield is now a quiet middle-aged woman living in Philadelphia, a teacher of singer. Miss Kate Lanice who accompanies her here is a talented pupil, only seventeen years of age, who gives great promise. They sing here this evening for the benefit of the Buffalo Freedman’s Aid Society, a most meritorious institution, which is supplying two model schools with teachers, books and materials for teaching sewing; one of them is at Richmond, the other at Camp Trent, N.C. We hope they will be greeted by a full house.
Greenfield’s students included several prominent African American singers, including Thomas J. Bowers, who became more overtly political than Greenfield ever did (or could be). “What induced me more than any thing else to appear in public was to give the lie to ‘negro serenaders’ (minstrels), and to show to the world that coloured men and women could sing classical music as well as the members of the other race by whom they had been so terribly vilified,” he wrote. He refused to perform before segregated audiences, thereby traveling further down the road of equality than his teacher was able to.
Interestingly it appears that Greenfield organized an opera troupe in the 1860s (foreshadowing Mary Cardwell Dawson or even Emma Steiner or Emma Abbott), but little information is currently publicly available about that project. Hopefully as scholars uncover more about Greenfield’s life and career, more information will come to light.
Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield died of “sudden paralysis” in Philadelphia on 31 March 1876. The New York Times ran an obituary praising her career and her contributions. Despite her importance to American history, a definitive modern biography has yet to be written.
As always, a huge shout-out to the patrons who make this series of articles on forgotten musical women possible! It wouldn’t happen without you. If you want to support the series for as little as a dollar a month, click here. Entries (typically) come out every other Wednesday.
Here’s a list of sources:
Becoming the “Black Swan” in Mid-Nineteenth-Century America: Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield’s Early Life and Debut Concert Tour, by Julia J. Chybowski, Journal of the American Musicological Society, Spring 2014
African American Concert Singers Before 1950, by Darryl Glenn Nettles
The Music of Black Americans: A History, by Eileen Southern
“The Black Swan”, The Crisis, March 1921
Noted Negro Women: Their Triumphs and Activities, by Monroe Alphus Majors
“Greenfield, Elizabeth Taylor”, article written by Katherine Treppendahl in The Mississippi Encyclopedia
Music and Some Highly Musical People, by James M. Trotter
And So I Sing, by Rosalyn M. Story
The Black Swan At Home and Abroad, author unknown
“Greenfield, Elizabeth Taylor”, article written by Raymond Lemieux, Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience
The Giant and How He Humbugged America, by Jim Murphy
“Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield”, article written by Eric Garner, African American Lives
“Bowers, Thomas J.”, article by Aldrich W. Adkins, Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience