Join us during Black History Month and Women’s History Month as we follow Elisabeth Taylor Greenfield‘s singing career through mid-19th century newspapers. There are a number of inspirational resources available to the public to listen, read, learn, and share stories of African Americans, celebrating their journeys and contributions to society. The Library of Congress, Smithsonian Libraries, and others offer an ongoing tribute here: https://blackhistorymonth.gov/
In this post, we are exploring stories hidden in newspapers highlighting the career of Elisabeth Taylor Greenfield. Born into slavery in Mississippi in 1819, she moved with her widowed owner, Mrs. Greenfield, at the age of one to Philadelphia. Mrs. Greenfield was a Quaker and opposed slavery. She freed her slaves after her move to Philadelphia, offering paid employment. Elizabeth demonstrated a natural musical talent at a young age playing several instruments. Self-taught, her tremendous vocal talent soon became her main focus. Singing popular music of the day, including opera arias, parlor songs, ballads, and hymns, she gained many admirers for her raw talent. This was a time period when European artists like Jenny Lind (the “Swedish Nightingale”) were touring through Europe and America. The newspapers named Ms. Greenfield the “Black Swan” following the tradition of bird nicknames for female singers as well as an obvious racialization to spotlight her enslaved past.
In 1851, Ms. Greenfield performed her first major public recital. This was covered by the Buffalo Daily Republic on October 21, 1851. Newspapers are a great resource for concert announcements, listing the entire program. (You can click on the image to get a closer view)
The next day, Oct 22, 1851, the Buffalo Daily Republic printed another announcement:
On October 23, 1851 the review was printed:
A positive review overall; however, if we add some context to this story we find a tremendously courageous woman. Picture a single Black female standing on a stage in a hall filled with mostly white audiences performing pieces previously showcased by European singers. Just two years earlier, Harriet Tubman escaped from slavery and began helping other slaves through the Underground Railroad. A year before, in 1850, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act requiring any federal official to arrest anyone suspected of being a runaway slave. In 1852, Frederick Douglass delivered his speech, “The Meaning of July 4th for the Negro.” This same year, Harriet Beecher Stowe published “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
After this first performance Ms. Greenfield met Harriet Beecher Stowe and in 1853 they traveled to England to perform for dignitaries while building a transatlantic abolition movement. Below is a report of one of these performances printed by the New York Daily Herald on June 11, 1853.
Ms. Greenfield moved back to Philadelphia and continued to perform into the 1860s opening a music studio and opera troupe. Proceeds from their performances were donated during the Civil War to nursing homes and orphanages for African Americans. In 1865, the Freedman’s Bureau was established during Reconstruction. This was a government agency set up to assist freedmen in the South. In 1867, Ms. Greenfield performed for the Freedman’s Bureau to help raise funds. The concert was announced in The Buffalo Commercial on May 29, 1867.
Ms. Greenfield died on March 31, 1876, in Philadelphia. Her courageous legacy continues to this day. In the 1920s, Black Swan Records, one of the first phonograph record companies to be owned and operated by African Americans, was named after Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield.
Baylor Libraries encourage you to continue your research on these hidden stories of amazing people well beyond the named months for Black history and Women’s history. The articles in this post came from the Baylor Libraries database: Newspapers.com World Collection.
If you are interested in more information about the collections or would like to visit, please send us an email at RareCollections@baylor.edu.