The Black Swan

In celebration of Black History Month, I salute Elizabeth Greenfield (1819-1876), a Mississippi slave whose golden voice was her ticket to freedom. Born on a Natchez, Mississippi, plantation, Elizabeth was taken as an infant to Philadelphia by her owner, Holliday Greenfield. After joining the Society of Friends (Quakers), Mrs. Greenfield freed and adopted her charge. As Elizabeth grew up and showed a natural flair for singing, she astonished Mrs. Greenfield with the power and range of her voice and her self-taught skills on the guitar. Recognizing a remarkable talent, Mrs. Greenfield sought formal training, but could find no Philadelphia voice coach willing to jeopardize his professional reputation with a student of color, even at three times the going rate of ten dollars per quarter.

Black Swan

Elizabeth Greenfield

 

As fate would have it, the daughter of a neighboring physician heard about Elizabeth’s voice and invited her into her home where she accompanied her on the pianoforte. Elizabeth’s “sweet, sad, sacred, solemn” sounds attracted everyone in the house, all of whom were spellbound and greeted the impromptu performance with much applause. Elizabeth was overcome with emotion by her first “public performance,” but soon adapted to her newfound celebrity as she taught herself operatic arias and entertained at private parties throughout the city. In 1844, Mrs. Greenfield died and left her adopted daughter a sizable inheritance which was unfortunately lost after being contested. Left on her own at age twenty-five, Elizabeth accepted an invitation to visit friends in Buffalo, New York. En route, she boarded a ferry crossing Lake Seneca and, at the urging of fellow passengers, began to sing. Her rich, full voice echoed across the waters and again astounded all listeners. Also aboard was a wealthy Buffalo matron who became her patroness. This led to a series of concerts, including one before the Buffalo Musical Association, and the nickname, “Black Swan.”

Despite her lack of formal training, musicologists were stunned by Elizabeth’s ability to traverse the scale from G in the bass clef to E in the treble. Her untrained, wholly natural voice even made Boston critics swoon. After an 1852 performance, journalist Benjamin Shillaber gushed, “No male voice could have given utterance to sounds more clearly and strikingly masculine. People gazed in wonder, as though dubious of the sex of the performer, a doubt that was soon dispelled by the smooth sweetness of the next vocal piece from Norma and by the astonishing height to which the Swan ascended, in surmounting and mastering the brilliant and beautiful cantata, ‘Like the Gloom of Night Retiring.’” Elizabeth could, noted another critic, “embrace twenty-seven notes, reaching from the sonorous bass of a baritone, to a few above the highest of Jenny Lind’s notes.” (Lind, the so-called “Swedish Nightingale,” was the superstar singer of her day.) Elizabeth soon became in demand nationally and internationally, and three years after her Buffalo debut she traveled to Europe where the Duchess of Sutherland became her benefactor, enabling her to sing before Queen Victoria in Buckingham Palace. Europeans were as moved as American audiences by a black woman performing operatic arias, along with lesser fare, and those expecting a musical oddity were quickly won over.

Elizabeth stood alone in her rarefied field, and with no role models to emulate, she boldly became her own. After her European triumphs, she returned to Philadelphia and opened a voice studio to teach students of all colors, thereby ensuring proper coaching once denied her because of her race. Elizabeth Greenfield’s courage and perseverance in blazing a trail is undeniable. While fellow Mississippi diva, Leontyne Price, is considered the first African-American to gain international acclaim as a professional opera singer, we can only imagine how high the Black Swan might have soared with professional training. History records that she did miraculously well without it.

Natchez Marker

Natchez is the setting for my next book, The Goat Castle Murder: Moonlight and Madness in Mississippi, due July, 2016 from Water Street Press.

3 Comments

  1. Linda
    Feb 13, 2015

    Thank you for this, Michael. I always learn something new from your blogs.

  2. Liz
    Feb 14, 2015

    Once again you have provided us with a fascinating profile and another intriguing piece to the puzzle that is our history. I wonder if Oprah knows about Elizabeth Greenfield… there is certainly the potential for a film in this life story.

    Thanks for introducing us to Elizabeth Greenfield!

  3. Scott
    Feb 15, 2015

    Another excellent piece of history explained so well. Thank you! I wonder how many black people will read this. If so, I look forward to what they might have to say. Especially when it comes to outstanding efforts and successes in other black accomplishments, both past and present.

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