Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield was one of the first African American singers to cross nineteenth-century America’s formidable racial barrier and garner serious attention from white audiences. Taylor’s father was an African-born slave and her mother a Seminole Indian. Taylor was unschooled in social graces and received no formal voice or music lessons. Moreover, she was often considered an eyesore: a critic later admitted that fairly assessing her talent required him to listen to her without looking. However, she possessed an astonishing twenty-seven-note range, traversing it with ease and great emotion and leaving nearly every music critic of her generation in raptures.
The story of her unlikely journey to the public eye began in Natchez, where she was born into a family owned by Elizabeth Holiday Greenfield, a wealthy Quaker. Early in her childhood young Elizabeth Taylor and her family moved with Greenfield to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and, as a consequence of both the political climate of the North and Greenfield’s religious beliefs, Taylor’s family was freed and given money to start a new life in Liberia. While the rest of the Taylors left for Africa, Elizabeth elected to stay behind in America in Greenfield’s household and added her mistress’s last name. While in Greenfield’s home, the girl began teaching herself to play the guitar and harp, instruments that served as accompaniments to her voice. Several of her friends and neighbors encouraged her to develop her musical gifts.
Elizabeth Holiday Greenfield died in 1844, and Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, now in her thirties, made her way to Buffalo, New York, to live with friends. On the train ride north, a wealthy general’s wife overheard Greenfield singing and, impressed by her voice, invited her to sing for a party the following week at her home in Buffalo. The general, his wife, and their guests were awed by her untrained yet brilliant voice, and she was soon invited to sing at other events around town. Over the next few years, Greenfield sang before large audiences in New York and the Midwest. Reviewers raved about her effortless skill, comparing her to Jenny Lind and Teresa Parodi, the vocal superstars of the 1850s, and dubbing her the Black Swan.
To receive formal training, Greenfield traveled to London in 1853 with the financial support of her fans in Buffalo. In England, she met Harriet Beecher Stowe and several aristocratic English women. Greenfield was an instant success, and in the summer of 1854 she found herself before a most impressive audience—Queen Victoria and her court.
Despite her popularity, Greenfield lacked the funds to remain in London longer than a year, and in late summer of 1854 she returned to the United States, where she resettled in Philadelphia. Over the next twenty years, she gave voice lessons and occasional concerts. She died on 31 March 1876. Half a century later, Harry Pace borrowed her nickname for the first African American record company, Black Swan.
- Tonya Bolden, The Book of African-American Women (1996)
- Benjamin Brawley, The Negro Genius (1937)
- Monroe Alphus Majors, Noted Negro Women: Their Triumphs and Activites (1893)