Thursday, September 15, 2011

From Natchez to Buckingham Palace

Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield

Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield became the first and one of the most celebrated African American singers to gain recognition in both Europe and the United States. Her determination, talents, and gifts took her to places beyond what anyone could imagine for a slave from Mississippi during the 1850's. Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, also known as The Black Swan, possessed an incredible and powerful clear 27-31 note voice range. She sang soprano, tenor, and bass. James Trotter, one of her vocal contemporaries, described her as having “remarkably sweet tones and wide vocal compass.” She worked hard and persevered to overcome the challenges surrounding her.

Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield was born a slave in Natchez, Mississippi as Elizabeth Taylor in 1824. At the tender age of one, she was taken to Philadelphia by her namesake and owner Mrs. Elizabeth Greenfield, who she was named for. Once settled in Philadelphia, Mrs. Elizabeth Greenfield joined the Society of Friends and freed the slaves she owned. However, Miss Elizabeth continued to serve as a maid and companion. A self-taught vocalist and musician Miss Elizabeth learned to play the piano, guitar, and harp, often providing entertainment for Mrs. Greenfield’s guests. After Mrs. Greenfield’s death, she supported herself by giving public and private performances, gaining significant recognition throughout the Northeast.  

On March 31, 1853, in a landmark engagement, Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield made her New York City debut at Metropolitan Hall, drawing an all-white audience that exceeded nearly 4,000 people. Though she had quite a following among white audiences, some of her contemporaries were not as favorable of her success. In a very critical review, well-known abolitionist and orator Fredrick Douglass, stated: “We marvel that Miss Greenfield can allow herself to be treated with such palpable disrespect; for the insult is to her, not less than to her race. She must have felt deep humiliation and depression while attempting to sing in the presence of an audience and under arrangements which had thus degraded and dishonored the people to which she belongs...She is quite mistaken if she supposes that her success, as an artist depends upon her entire abandonment of self-respect…We warn her also, that this yielding, on her part, to the cowardly and contemptible exactions of the negro haters of this country may meet her in a distant land in a manner which she little imagines.“

Nevertheless, a few days following her recital, she traveled to Europe for engagements in England, Scotland, and Ireland, in hopes of finding a good teacher to further develop her vocal technique. Shortly after her arrival in England, she was abandoned and left penniless by her manager in London. Luckily Greenfield crossed paths with Harriet Beecher Stowe, a zealous American abolitionist and author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, while in London. With Stowe’s assistance, she was able to sing for the Duchess of Norfolk, the Duchess of Argyle, and the Duchess of Sutherland.  She even received a royal invitation to sing for Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace.

Illustrated News, 2 April 1853
The Prints Collection at AARL

Upon returning to America, Greenfield received anything but the royal treatment. She was refused entrance to a university music class because of her race. Determined, Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield opened a music studio in Philadelphia, where she created and directed an opera troupe in the 1860s. Greenfield used music and her opera troupe to fight the oppressive systems of American slavery and racism. Her troupe traveled the world singing for integrated audiences and donating proceeds to colored nursing homes and orphanages. Ironically, Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield’s efforts brought her side-by-side with one of her harshest detractors, Frederick Douglass. Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield continued to perform until she died suddenly in Philadelphia on March 31, 1876 of paralysis.

 Check out the Auburn Avenue Research Library’s archives to learn more about the artistic and socially conscious contributions of people like Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield. 


Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans: A History. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1997.

Trotter, James. Music and Some Highly Musical People. New York: General Books, 1997.

Posted by Debra Coulter & Yewande Addie, AARL Interns

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