Sometime in 1851, Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, a black concert soprano, embarked on a tour that caused a shaking on the American music scene. The period prior to the American Civil War, saw concert and operatic songs rise in popularity. Two concert sopranos of European origin, however, led the movement, Catherine Hayes and Jenny Lind. Both were so popular no one could ever imagine Greenfield could burst to the scene.
Here are a few reasons why. Firstly, Greenfield was a former slave meaning she had all the odds against her. She shouldn’t even have the confidence to stand before a crowd to sing, let alone be a concert soprano. Another reason is that a budding school of thought, whose leader at the time was John Sullivan Dwight, believed that such music was reserved for white folk alone. According to them, blacks didn’t have the genius to produce such class of music, they could only come up with music which lacks sufficient skill or depth.
Greenfield was no joker, she stepped up to the podium and shattered every stereotype or preexisting belief.
The Black Swan
Greenfield was born in 1820 to a slave family in Natchez, Mississippi. While she was still a little girl a young abolitionist took her from home to raise her in Philadelphia. From childhood she began learning music, mostly training herself and kicked off her career in New York, supported by the Buffalo Music Association. It was in Buffalo she got the nickname, “the Black Swan.” The intention of this was to benefit for the popularity of Jenny Lind who was nicknamed “the Swedish Nightingale.”
Greenfield got a new promoter in 1851, Colonel Joseph H. Wood, who was recognized for being extremely racist. He had worked on several projects which were very successful, like the wonderment museums in Chicago and Cincinnati. What Wood wanted to achieve was gain the same kind of popularity and success with Greenfield that Jenny Lind’s promoter P.T. Barnum had achieved with the European singer.
It was noted that Wood never allowed black patrons to any of his museums to Greenfield’s performances. This was a serious source of concern for the singer’s black audience all through her career. Wood was an ardent supporter of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 as well.
Reconciling hearing to racism
There was already a stereotype as to what to expect from a black singer. White audiences never expected to hear a black concert soprano, let alone possess the sonorous voice Greenfield had. Greenfield’s voice and delivery however shattered every single stereotype as she caused confusion wherever she sang. It was like what was on the mind of her white audience was, how come we can hear the voice of an angel from a black lady?
Her audiences found it difficult to reconcile the voice they heard with the face before them. Greenfield performed repertoire thought as impossible for a black person so effortlessly. Her excellent skill forced critics to reevaluate their beliefs about what African-American singers could achieve.
The birthing of a new star
Greenfield made her New York City debut at the Metropolitan Hall on March 31, 1853. This hall was originally built for Jenny Lind and at the time, it was one of the largest on the planet. The day preceding the event saw the New York Daily Tribune announce that no colored people will be allowed into the hall as there was no space allotted to them. The announced sparked an uproar all over the city from black folk which made the police commissioner send in a large number of police officers to the venue of the event.
As she stepped on the stage she was welcomed with a roar of laughter. The opening moments of the show were quite awkward but Greenfield was unfazed by her audience’s reaction. Instead she took her performance a notch further to blow them away, breaking every single stereotype in the room. No sooner had she completed her American tour did she go on a tour of Europe, this time with her close friend, Harriet Beecher Stowe.
By her amazing delivery, Greenfield not only made a name for herself, but she also set the stage for the many other female concert singers who rose up after her. She became a reference point, one which made the white Americans and Europeans recognize the ability of singers of African descent to match up to their white counterparts and possibly surpass them.