Last updated: December 8, 2021
Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield was the first African American opera singer who became popular in the United States and Europe. Many reviewers and critics portrayed Greenfield as unusual and exotic to increase her popularity. Nevertheless, her performances disrupted racist stereotypes about slavery and Black people. She became the best-known Black concert artist of her time and performed for Queen Victoria.
Have you ever seen a memorable live performance? What made it so powerful? How did it make you feel?
Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield was born into slavery in Natchez, Mississippi. During the 1820s, Greenfield’s enslaver, Elizabeth Holiday Greenfield, divorced her husband and relocated to Philadelphia. E.H. Greenfield freed her slaves and sent some of them to Liberia. She brought other former slaves, including Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, to Philadelphia with her.
Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield grew up among upper-class whites and free African Americans in Philadelphia. She lived with E.H. Greenfield until 1833, when she started going to Clarkson School. The school was private and run by Quakers. Living in Philadelphia also offered Greenfield the chance to learn about music. Historians believe that she studied on her own and learned from neighbors and local music teachers.
By the late 1830s, Greenfield returned to care for her aging former enslaver. E.H. Greenfield offered wages and included Greenfield in her will. Yet local authorities delayed the inheritance for many years. E.H. Greenfield’s death in 1845 left Greenfield without a home or a job.
Greenfield continued to develop her musical skills and became a teacher within five years. By the time she departed for Buffalo, New York in fall 1851, she had still not received her inheritance.
Musical Debut and First Tour
During her travels from Philadelphia to Buffalo, Greenfield sang and played guitar. She impressed many of her fellow passengers, including Electra Potter. Potter was a wealthy, white socialite whose husband was a prominent lawyer in Buffalo. She invited Greenfield to perform at a private party at their mansion on October 9, 1851. Due to the Potters’ status, the performance received lots of attention from local newspapers.
The Potters also helped Greenfield to make important contacts. She quickly received several invitations for private performances and public concerts. Within the month, Greenfield performed for the Buffalo Musical Association at Townsend Hall twice. She then began to tour in other cities.
Between 1851 and 1853, Greenfield launched her first tour. She gave concerts throughout the northern United States and northeastern Canada. Many of the venues where Greenfield performed had racist seating or admission regulations. For instance, Black people who attended Greenfield’s shows at Townsend Hall were relegated to the balconies. Other venues excluded Black audiences altogether.
On a break from touring, Greenfield returned to Buffalo. She stayed with the Howards, a white family. Hiram E. Howard was the president of the Buffalo Musical Association. He and Buffalo mayor Eli Cook arranged for Greenfield to tour in Europe starting in April 1853.
In the weeks before her departure, Greenfield sang at benefit concerts. She also performed in New York City for the first time to fundraise for her European tour.
Confronting Racism on the Stage
After Greenfield’s debut in 1851, the Buffalo Commercial Advertiser nicknamed her “The Black Swan.” During the 1800s, it was common to refer to singers as birds. Unlike popular white vocalists, Greenfield’s nickname foregrounded her race.
The "Black Swan" nickname shaped audience expectations before Greenfield ever set foot on stage. When she debuted in the 1850s, minstrel shows peaked in popularity. Many white people only associated Black music with the racist stereotypes of minstrelsy, including blackface.
In the United States, few Black musicians received national attention for their own music until after the Civil War. Greenfield performed opera songs and ballads, which were popular among white audiences. White vocalists usually performed these types of music, so newspapers often compared her to the white opera singer Jenny Lind.
Critics and reviewers also portrayed Greenfield as unusual and exotic. They emphasized her Blackness and the fact that she was enslaved at birth. Newspapers attributed her ability to sing lower notes to her race. These descriptions increased Greenfield’s popularity, but they also emphasized her distance from white audiences. At a time when tensions over slavery were rising, treating Black people as strange and different was one way to maintain racist hierarchies.
When Greenfield debuted in New York City, Metropolitan Hall advertised that “No colored persons can be admitted, as there is no part of the house appropriated for them.” This policy frustrated many Black New Yorkers. Some of them sent letters to the manager of Metropolitan Hall and threatened to riot if Greenfield were allowed to perform. On the day of the concert, a large number of police officers were stationed around the venue. No violence broke out.
Local Black religious leaders requested that Greenfield repeat her performance for Black New Yorkers at the Broadway Tabernacle. She agreed to perform and donate the proceeds to African American charities.
European Concert Tour
Greenfield’s European tour took her to England, Scotland, and Ireland. She won the favor of the Duchesses of Sutherland, Norfolk, and Argyll. They became her patrons during the tour.
On May 10, 1854, Greenfield sang for Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace. While in London, Greenfield also met Harriet Beecher Stowe, the American author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
After a performance at Exeter Hall, a reviewer in the London Advertiser commented:
“Apart from the natural gifts with which this lady is endowed, the great musical skill which she has acquired both as a singer and an instrumentalist, are convincing arguments against the assertion so often made, that the negro race are incapable of intellectual culture of a high standard.”
Greenfield captivated audiences in both the United States and Europe. Through her performances, she challenged racist stereotypes about slavery and Black people.
There is little documentation about Greenfield's life after the European tour. According to her obituary, she received a warm welcome back to the United States. Afterwards, she made few public appearances, except for a few benefit concerts. After the Civil War, other Black women singers like Sissieretta Jones followed in Greenfield's footsteps with acclaimed performances and international tours.
Greenfield eventually moved back to Philadelphia. She became very involved with the Shiloh Baptist Church. On March 31, 1876, she died of paralysis in her home.
 Philadelphia is part of the Certified Local Government (CLG) program. CLGs partner with the National Park Service to promote local preservation. There is a historical marker at one of the places where Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield lived in Philadelphia.
 Buffalo is a Certified Local Government. Many of Greenfield’s most important early performances occurred in Buffalo.
The Black Swan at Home and Abroad or, A Biographical Sketch of Miss Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, the American Vocalist. Philadelphia: William S. Young, 1855. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/46526/46526-h/46526-h.htm.
Chybowski, Julia J. “Becoming the ‘Black Swan’ in Mid-Nineteenth Century America: Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield’s Early Life and Debut Concert Tour.” Journal of the American Musicological Society 67, no. 1 (2014): 125-165. https://doi.org/10.1525/jams.2014.67.1.125.
New York Times. “Music.” April 1, 1853. https://nyti.ms/3CVmxVm.
New York Times. “Obituary: Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield.” April 2, 1876. https://nyti.ms/31GNQWf.
The content for this article was researched and written by Jade Ryerson, an intern with the Cultural Resources Office of Interpretation and Education.