Her voice swooped and soared through complex operatic melodies, thrilling audiences in the antebellum North. She gave encore after encore to listeners who couldn’t get enough. She was Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, one of the first Black performers to gain nationwide fame in the nineteenth-century United States. Musicologist Julia J. Chybowski digs into the history of “The Black Swan”—and explores how her identity was interpreted by audiences.
Greenfield was born into slavery in 1819, and named after her mistress, a Quaker woman. Greenfield moved from the South to Philadelphia after the woman who had enslaved her freed all of her slaves. She continued to work as her former mistress’s caretaker for years, even as she received a formal education and learned to sing. “Despite having been born into slavery, E. T. Greenfield shared much cultural background with European Americans and free-born African Americans living in Philadelphia,” Chybowski writes.
But that cultured background could not protect her from the disparities faced by Black people in the North. When the elder Elizabeth Greenfield died, her namesake was left penniless, homeless, jobless, and embroiled in controversy as to whether the former slaveholder meant to leave her a substantial inheritance. Chybowski notes that there was a will leaving the younger Greenfield a large sum of money, but “Philadelphia-based trustees and lawyers suspended the payments for over a decade while they debated the wealthy widow’s intentions and mental condition at the time of signing the will.”
To survive, Greenfield taught music. She got her big break in 1851 when she gave a private performance for a rich Buffalo socialite and her friends. Dubbed “the Black Swan” by Buffalo journalists, she was soon sought after and supported by wealthy white and Black patrons who arranged for, publicized, and supported her performances. In a time of publicly-sanctioned segregation, she performed for mixed audiences.
As her fame grew she embarked on a national tour. Soon, Greenfield was performing in front of audiences of thousands. At places like the New York Harmonic Society, which prohibited Black people from attending, people prevented from seeing her nearly rioted. In response, Greenfield would sometimes perform the same program at both white and Black venues.
Chybowski analyzes Greenfield’s performance style, which was closely monitored in an era in which women—let alone Black women—were discouraged from appearing in public. To avoid racist critiques of Black morality, Greenfield dressed modestly and performed largely white-coded music, despite her mixed audience. Her wide vocal range was particularly provoking to audiences who associated low alto voices with masculinity. In Greenfield’s case, her range was used as a way to cast aspersions on her performances, provoking “wonder, fear, disgust” and prompting reviewers to portray her as a “racial Other.”
Greenfield flummoxed audiences who weren’t sure how to respond to her race or her talent. The cultural mixing she represented, writes Chybowski, created confusion as to whether she was a legitimate talent or a minstrel-like parody of a white singer.
But even as she confused audiences, she entranced them, uplifting Black listeners and forcing white ones to acknowledge her talent and achievement. “Much about her marketed image and reception was out of Greenfield’s control,” Chybowski writes, “yet, she constantly dealt with shifting expectations of her race, as well as class and gender.”