To ignore slavery as part of American history is to dismiss the lessons that cruel past can teach us. Yet there are recent debates about how that injustice should be covered in textbooks. July is the month when we celebrate freedom, but we cannot appreciate our freedoms without understanding that some of us have had to fight much harder to simply be seen as Americans. Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield was born into slavery on July 13th, but she rose to heights that rival the biggest celebrities today. Dates for Greenfield’s birth varied wildly from 1809 to 1824 and reflect the reality of record-keeping among slave owners. While we cannot ignore her birth, the exact date isn’t as important as her rise to fame as a singer.
Greenfield was classically trained in music after choosing to stay with her former owner, who freed her slaves after converting to Quakerism. This choice to stay and work with her talents as a soprano was a brave one. Greenfield was a self-taught harpist and pianist who sang in her local church. Her vocal range impressively stretched from soprano to bass. By embracing the European soprano music that was popular prior to the Civil War, she was directly challenging the status quo.
Not everyone who supported Greenfield was a supporter of equal rights. But from 1851 onward, Greenfield’s professional promoter was Colonel Joseph H. Wood, who held opinions about race and slavery that appalled several of her fans. She was called “The Black Swan” in her promotional materials, a title that is undeniably racist. It paralleled that of “The Swedish Nightingale,” Jenny Lind, who was wrapping up an American tour at that time. Greenfield used Wood’s connections to demonstrate her amazing voice. During her first years of concerts, Greenfield’s critics reluctantly praised her and audiences outright laughed at her. Instead of giving up or singing the minstrel style songs also popular in her day, Greenfield continued.
By 1853, Greenfield’s fame was such that she performed in the Metropolitan Hall that had originally been built for Jenny Lind’s concerts. The year after that performance, she traveled to England accompanied by her friend Harriet Beecher Stowe, who helped her after her previous manager refused to cover expenses. There she found royal patrons and performed before Queen Elizabeth.
After successful American and international tours, Greenfield returned to Philadelphia in 1854, where she taught music until her death in 1876 - just 11 years after the 13th Amendment was ratified. Greenfield also directed an opera troupe with one of her most famous students during the 1860s, Thomas J. Bowers, and gave benefit concerts for local charities that supported African-Americans.
Decades after her death, Black Swan Records was named in her honor. Though short-lived, the company helped bring recognition to talented artists who were otherwise ignored. List of history’s best singers often ignore Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield. Perhaps this is in part because she was popular long before recordings could be made. Given praise from even the biased critics of her concerts, it is easy to imagine that she could easily hold her own against any of the best female singers we have heard in the past century.