Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield was an acclaimed 19th century African-American concert soprano, known for her impressive range in the United States and Europe. Born into slavery in Natchez, Mississippi in 1817, Greenfield was emancipated as an infant by her owner Elizabeth Halliday Greenfield, the widow of a planter, and brought to Philadelphia to work as a maid. She grew up singing around the house and at church, developing her skills as a vocalist with a neighboring amateur musician who accompanied her on guitar and piano; Greenfield performed locally at private parties throughout the 1840s. When Halliday Greenfield died in 1845, she left a portion of her estate to her servant, but the will was contested and Greenfield never received any of the money. It is speculated that this financial predicament most likely prompted her to pursue singing professionally.
In 1851, Greenfield made her public debut at the Buffalo Music Association where she was christened “The Black Swan.” This performance marked the beginning of a northeast tour that would last for several years. Greenfield received a slew of favorable reviews; nevertheless, they were often tinged with racialized incredulity and condescension by white critics. By the end of that year Greenfield secured management with Colonel J.H. Wood, a Cincinnati-based museum manager and impresario; unfortunately, Wood’s strategy was to market Greenfield as a racial curiosity. In 1853, Greenfield gave a concert at Metropolitan Hall in New York City. The performance was not without tribulation; even as an estimated thousand African Americans gathered at the rear of the concert house to listen, the admitted audience was exclusively white, and her engagement was marked by a threat of arson prior to the concert. With the possibility of riot imminent, police filled the streets.
Shortly after, Greenfield embarked on a tour of Europe, but was abandoned upon arrival by her manager Wood, who refused to pay her expenses. Not to be deterred, Greenfield sought the assistance of activist Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Stowe arranged patronage for Greenfield in England with Duchesses of Sutherland, Norfolk and Argyle, and introduced the singer to other members of the English gentry, for whom she sang. In 1854, Greenfield performed for Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace, the first Black entertainer ever to do so.
When Greenfield returned to the U.S., she continued to tour and make appearances with African-American luminaries Frederick Douglass and the poet-journalist Frances Watkins-Harper throughout the Civil War. She also gave performances to benefit charities including the Home of Aged Colored Persons and the Colored Orphan Asylum. Additionally, Greenfield mentored vocalists Thomas J. Bowers and Carrie Thomas. She died in Philadelphia in 1876.
In 1921, Harry Pace, a student of W.E.B. DuBois, created the first African-American record label and named it in Greenfield’s honor: Black Swan Records. Notable artists produced by the label included Fletcher Henderson, Ethel Waters, R. Nathaniel Dett and Trixie Smith, all beneficiaries of Greenfield’s extraordinary legacy.