Elizabeth Greenfield

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Elizabeth Greenfield

Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield (1824 – March 31, 1876), dubbed "The Black Swan", was an African-American singer considered the best-known black concert artist of her time. She was noted by James M. Trotter for her "remarkably sweet tones and wide vocal compass".


Greenfield was born a slave in Natchez, Mississippi, but was adopted or inherited by another woman named Elizabeth Greenfield, a Philadelphia Quaker, as an infant. The child's mother was of Indian descent and her father was black. Her mistress moved to Philadelphia and emancipated her slaves, sending many of them to Liberia. The child's mother and her two parents were among those who went to Liberia, but she remained in Philadelphia.[1] She studied music as a child although it was forbidden by the Quakers with whom she associated. At this point she began to sing at private parties. Her concert debut was in 1851 presented for the Buffalo Musical Association. From 1851 to 1853 she toured as managed by Colonel J. H. Wood.[2]

In 1853, she debuted at Metropolitan Hall in New York City, which held an audience of four thousand, white patrons only. After the concert, Greenfield apologized to her own people for their exclusion from the performance and gave a concert to benefit the Home of Aged Colored Persons and the Colored Orphan Asylum.

In April 1853, she went to London under the patronage of the Duchess of Sutherland and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Greenfield was taught by Queen Victoria's Chapel Royal organist, George Smart. She gave a command performance for the queen at Buckingham Palace on May 10, 1854; she was the first black performer to perform before royalty.[3] Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote about Greenfield's appearance before the "elite" English society in "Sunny Memories of Foreign Lands"[4] In England, she also received patronage from the Duchess of Norfolk and the Duchess of Argyle.[2]

Best known for her performances of the music of George Frideric Handel, Vincenzo Bellini, and Gaetano Donizetti, she also performed sentimental American songs such as Henry Bishop's 1852 setting of John Howard Payne's "Home! Sweet Home!" and Stephen Foster's "Old Folks at Home".[5]

Returning to the United States, she toured and conducted a Philadelphia music studio. Among her voice pupils was Thomas Bowers, who became known as "The Colored Mario" and "The American Mario" for the similarity of his voice to Italian opera tenor Giovanni Mario.[6][7] In the 1860s she created an opera troupe with Bowers which she directed.[8] Greenfield died in Philadelphia of paralysis on March 31, 1876. She was a member of the Philadelphia Shiloh Baptist Church.[2]


  1. ^ The Black Swan - Miss Greenfield, The Tri-Weekly Commercial (Wilmington, North Carolina), November 2, 1854, page 4, accessed September 8, 2016 at https://www.newspapers.com/clip/6551422//
  2. ^ a b c Obituary - Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, The New York Times (New York, New York), April 2, 1876, page 2, accessed September 8, 2016 at https://www.newspapers.com/clip/6551441//
  3. ^ "Claiming Their Citizenship: African American Women From 1624-1009" Archived 2012-02-27 at the Wayback Machine., Timeline, NWHM.
  4. ^ "The Black Swan". The Crisis. March 1921. 
  5. ^ Lott, p. 235.
  6. ^ Nettles, Darryl Glenn (2003). African American concert singers before 1950. Jefferson, NC: McFarland. ISBN 0786414677. 
  7. ^ Appiah, Kwame Anthony; Gates, Jr., Henry Louis (2005). Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience. Oxford University Press. p. 598. ISBN 0195170555. 
  8. ^ Simmons, William J., and Henry McNeal Turner. Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive and Rising. GM Rewell & Company, 1887. p203

Further reading[edit]

  • Lott, Eric. Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. ISBN 0-19-507832-2.
  • Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans: A History. W. W. Norton & Company; 3rd edition. ISBN 0-393-97141-4
  • 3 Hine, Darlene Clark. Black Women in America: an historical Encyclopedia. Brooklyn, NY: Carlson Publishing, 1993. pp 499–501.

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