History Hunt: Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield

This week, we’re staying in the United States and moving back a century in time (more or less) to meet a musician who sang for a queen!

Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield was born Elizabeth Taylor in either 1809, 1817, 1819, or 1824…or possibly another date entirely. No one knows for certain. We do know, however, that she was born Natchez, Mississippi. Her mother was named Anna Greenfield and her father’s family name was Taylor–there isn’t any record of his surname. We also know that, for the first part of Greenfield’s life, all three of them were slaves.

At some point after Greenfield’s birth, however, the man holding her family as slaves died, and his widow, also named Elizabeth Greenfield, moved to Phillidelphia and brought Greenfield with her. The adult Elizabeth Greenfield later became a member of the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers. Most Quakers were against slavery, and so Elizabeth Greenfield soon freed all her slaves and gave them money to help support them in their new lives.

While Greenfield’s father (and perhaps mother) moved to Liberia in Africa after being freed, Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield remained behind and took the last name of the adult Elizabeth Greenfield. She taught herself how to play the guitar, the harp, and the piano, in part so she could accompany herself when she sang.

Greenfield loved to sing. She performed in church, and, in spite of the awful racism of the time, was able to take singing lessons for a while. Though her lessons were limited, her genius at singing was incredible: she had a range of nearly four octaves and was able to sing everything from the soprano range down to bass!

In 1844, Greenfield moved to Buffalo, New York, and made her public debut as a singer there in 1851. It was the first of many concerts–she spent the next two years touring throughout the United States.

Being respected as a singer the way she should have been did not come easily for Greenfield. Although she was no longer a slave, slavery was still legal in parts of the United States. In order for white audiences to take her seriously, she sang “opera arias, sentimental parlor songs, ballads of the British Isles, and the occasional hymn.” (Chybowski) This was what white people considered “civilised” music, because it was believed then (and sadly still these days) that certain music was “better” than others. Unsurprisingly, the “better” music was always music considered “white.”

Greenfield received mixed reviews wherever she went: sometimes people were able to accept her as the brilliant singer that she was who had fought hard against racism for the right to share her music. Sometimes they refused to. Once, in 1853, someone threatened to burn down the hall where she was scheduled to perform. She ignored the threat, sang anyway, and the concert was a success (and, it turned out, the threat was an empty one).

Some of her critics were her fellow African-Americans, and they had a very legitimate point. Frederick Douglass, the famous anti-slavery activist, once criticised her for performing in a white-only venue. According to the owners of the hall, it was all right for an African-American musician to entertain white people there, but African-Americans weren’t allowed to enjoy music.

In April 1853, Greenfield arrived in London to begin touring in England. However, she immediately ran into trouble: the manager she had hired cheated her, refusing to pay for her expenses as had been agreed. She dropped him and looked for a patron to help her get her tour going again. She soon found someone–two someones, as a matter of fact. One was Harriet Beecher Stowe, a white anti-slavery activist. The other was the Duchess of Southerland!

From then on, Greenfield had no need to worry about being able to share her music. Not only did the Duchess of Southerland become her patron, but so did the Duchess of Norfolk and the Duchess of Argyle! She even got to take music lessons again, from none other than the royal music advisor George Smart. And a year after her arrival came what must have been the highlight of her career: on May 10, 1854, she performed for Queen Victoria!

Unfortunately, in spite of her popularity, shortly after her performance for Queen Victoria, she once again ran into money problems. She had to end her music lessons and return to the United States to tour closer to home.

For the next decade or more, she toured across the United States with at least one stop in Canada. She did fundraising concerts for elderly and orphaned African-Americans, created and directed an opera group, and opened a music school in Philadelphia for the next generation of African-American singers. And, when the Civil War broke out in the United States, she spoke out in favour of equality for all peoples. She joined famous anti-slavery activists Frances E. W. Harper…and Frederick Douglass, the very person who had criticised her willingness to perform in halls that banned other African-Americans from attending. It speaks well indeed of both of them that they were willing to let bygones be bygones for their vitally important cause.

There are no recordings today of Greenfield’s performances and it’s difficult to know her exact repertoire, as it often wasn’t listed in the newspapers of the time. However, here’s a selection that was included in a recent concert dedicated to Greenfield:

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To Learn More (Sources):
*Please note that the URL of one source uses outdated terminology for Black people

“The Black Swan in England”: Abolition and the Reception of Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield by Julia Chybowski
Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield at Biography.com
African American Concert Singers Before 1950 by Darryl Glenn Nettles
Becoming the “Black Swan” in Mid-Nineteenth-Century America: Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield’s Early Life and Debut Concert Tour by Julia Chybowski
Greenfield, Elizabeth Taylor at Encyclopedia.com
Greenfield, Elizabeth Taylor at William Still: An African-American Abolitionist
Greenfield, Elizabeth Taylor (1819-1876) at Blackpast.org
Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield at Encyclopædia Britannica
Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield at Find A Grave
Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield at Negro Artist.com
Auburn Avenue Research Library on African American Culture and History (image source)
Opera Exposures to Present The Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield Story 2/6 at Broadway World.com


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