Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield: The Black Swan

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Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield

The first real Black prima donna was Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield (1809-1876), a native of Natchez, MS who achieved her most enduring fame as “The Black Swan.” She has also been called America’s first Black pop star.

She was born into slavery around 1809, the property of Mrs. E. H. Greenfield, a member of the American Emancipation Society. Plantation owner Greenfield moved to Philadelphia and liberated Elizabeth and her family. Growing up in Philadelphia, she attended a Quaker school and studied music under professional teachers. She later taught music in Buffalo and was first discovered when singing on a tour boat in Buffalo. Her professional career as a singer of opera began in 1851 with her debut at the Buffalo Musical Association. She was sometimes accompanied at her musical venues by Harriet Beecher Stowe, who is called her “friend” by a number of historians.

If anything, Greenfield was certainly America’s first Black prima donna, at the very top of a growing ledger of Black prima donnas, including the still living Leontyne Price, a native of Laurel. 

The New York Metropolitan Opera House was not built until 1883, seven years after the death of Greenfield, so she suffered no bans from the Met. She had sung instead at the most famous concert halls of her time, the same venues that accommodated the Swedish Nightingale, Jenny Lind, and the European prima donna foremothers of Adelina Patti, the “White Patti,” whose name was imposed on Sissieretta Jones – the Black Patti –  unwillingly at first, though Jones came to live with the moniker as it made her rich and famous as time went by. 

Regarding Greenfield, critic Eric Blake wrote in 2019: “She got her big break in 1851 when she gave a private performance for a rich Buffalo socialite and her friends. Dubbed ‘the Black Swan’ by Buffalo journalists, she was soon sought after and supported by wealthy white and Black patrons who arranged for, publicized, and supported her performances.”

There were always comparisons, whether spurious or genuinely inspired, made between the best Black operatic performers and the best white performers of their time, Jenny Lind (1820-1887), “the Swedish Nightingale,” whose American promoter P.T. Barnum regaled her stage name for every dime he could squeeze out of it during her 21 month tour of the United States. 

It was almost a given that Greenfield, considered to be a “Negro freak” by some of her white contemporaries, would be labeled something akin to the very white Swedish Nightingale – the Black Swam versus the Swedish Nightingale – though not for any good reason.

Greenfield embraced the stage name of the Black Swan, a name somewhat noble and very impressive on the surface. She gave a command performance for Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace on May 10, 1854, the first African American to perform before British royalty. Famous novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe accompanied Greenfield on some of her musical travels. 

In 1921, musician and music publisher Harry Pace named the nation’s first successful Black-owned record company Black Swan Records in her honor. William Grant Still was the musical director of Black Swan Records.

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Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield: The Black Swan

By Earnest McBride
February 26, 2024