Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield was an opera singer who lived during the ante-bellum era. What does an eighteenth-century opera singer teach us about perseverance?
An enigma of her time, Elizabeth was dubbed “The Black Swan,” by newspapers. Compared to Jinny Lind, “The Swedish Nightingale,” critics praised her four-octave voice as superior. A compliment few of her race could garner during her lifetime.
Born into slavery around 1820, Greenfield was freed by her mistress Mrs. Greenfield at the tender age of one. The senior Mrs. Greenfield moved to Philadelphia, became a Quaker, and freed all enslaved people in her employ. Mrs. Greenfield doted on the child and raised her as a companion. One day, a young Elizabeth found a guitar in the attic and taught herself to play. She hid her new skill from Mrs. Greenfield, knowing Quakers discouraged the participation of secular music. However, when she did discover the child’s talent the elderly Quaker woman was delighted and attempted to enroll the child at a local music school.
The proprietor refused. He made it clear to Mrs. Greenfield that his white students would not patronize his school if a black child attended. Thus, young Elizabeth was able to study under the tutelage of a doctor’s daughter who happened to hear Elizabeth singing outside her home.
At the age of ninety, Mrs. Greenfield died. Now a young woman in her 20s, Elizabeth inherited enough money to take care of herself for the rest of her life. As was common in cases like hers, relatives of Mrs. Greenfield contested the will and she lost her inheritance.
Having performed at her home for Mrs. Greenfield’s guests, Elizabeth decided to earn a living as a concert singer. Her first professional debut was at a New York theater garnered a tremendous amount of interest. Bomb threats and violence outside the theater nearly prevented her from appearing, but she was determined to go on.
The next day the newspapers heralded her performance and her professional singing career was launched. The height of her touring career in Europe culminated in 1854 when she gave a Command Performed for Queen Victoria in Buckingham Palace.
Still determined to enroll in a music program in Philadelphia, Elizabeth was turned down yet again, despite her international acclaim. Undaunted, she founded a music studio and put together an ensemble of singers of all races. They toured America and the European continent as The Black Swan Opera Troupe. One of her students in particular garnered his own international recognition, tenor singer, Thomas Bowers.
Elizabeth died in 1867 from a stroke. Her legacy was recognized in the 20th century when W.C. Handy, the Father of the Blues founded the first recording company owned by blacks and named it, Black Swan Records.
Elizabeth, in the face of great odds, pursued her goals despite threats and obstacles put in her way because of her race. She remains an inspiration to us all.