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Viewed as one of the greatest musicians of her time, Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield was an exceptional, well-known African American singer. Although Greenfield was born into slavery, she was emancipated not long after her birth. With the support of her former owner and dedicating her time to studying and learning, Greenfield excelled in her musical abilities. Once Greenfield gained popularity, she advocated for anti-slavery and equality laws through her voice and numerous performances.

The only recorded photograph of Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield

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"Zip Coon" was a popular song that portrayed African Americans as clumsy and inferior to whites. Greenfield opposed this stereotype through her songs and performances.

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Born into slavery in Natchez, Mississippi, Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, was an exceedingly well-known, self-taught African American musician. Shortly following her birth around 1819, Greenfield was emancipated. Along with her family and other former slaves, Elizabeth Taylor was formerly owned by Elizabeth Halliday Greenfield; Elizabeth Halliday was “a white Philadelphian with Welsh roots who had married into the plantocracy.” [1] Elizabeth Taylor relocated to Philadelphia with her mistress and adopted her mistress’s last name, whereas her parents emigrated to Liberia, a country in West Africa. After they resettled in Philadelphia, Elizabeth Taylor was encouraged by Halliday to indulge in her musical ability. Not only did Taylor have natural singing abilities, but she constantly studied to learn about her passion. Even after Halliday’s death in 1845, she continued to prosper in her musical realms. A few years later in 1851, “Elizabeth Greenfield gave her first public performances, in Buffalo, NY,” and not long after “she made a concert tour of several cities, including Boston and Chicago.” [5]

Greenfield’s rise to fame significantly contributed to closing the racial generalizations that coincided with vocal ability. Around 1852, Greenfield performed Jenny Lind’s repertoire; Lind was an opera singer from Sweden. While Lind’s performance was highly applauded, white elite critics labeled Greenfield’s singing as “noise.” [3] During the nineteenth century, many critics and audiences categorized singing voices as either “Black” or “white.” Greenfield appeared and performed in numerous white performance areas and gained support from innumerable wealthy, white men. White elite critics feared that Greenfield’s voice was “white,” and they feared her singing ability to “vocally pass and potentially best Lind.” [3] The critics trained listeners to decipher and categorize singing voices by race. On the other hand, some critics were moved by Greenfield's voice and performance, but their opinions changed once they saw her appearance. [4] However, Greenfield’s voice made this distinction difficult to interpret; her voice, “worked to decolonize listening and create alternative experiences of Blackness away from and in resistance to the listening ear.” [3] This where Greenfield obtained her nickname, the "Black Swan."

Through her voice and performances, Greenfield advocated for abolition and spoke out against slavery. In 1854, Taylor attended the National Women’s Rights Convention where she performed anti-slavery songs and other proclaimed anti-slavery speeches. Before this event, Greenfield “previously sung at a fundraising benefit for Shiloh Baptist Church in 1853.” [1] Many were unaware of Greenfield’s ties to slavery and were shocked to learn she was previously a slave. At both of these events, through her songs, Greenfield revealed her political views. Similarly, when Greenfieldreceived the opportunity to perform for Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace in 1854, she conveyed her viewpoints. One particular song that Greenfield sung for the Queen was titled, “The Vision of the Negro Slave.” [1] The content of this song, “is strikingly similar to the scene of Tom’s death in Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” which exhibits the cruel punishment slaves endured. [1] Once Greenfield publicly displayed her political and social beliefs, she continued to incorporate and proclaim her support for anti-slavery laws throughout her recitals.

Greenfield also focused her efforts on the “longstanding porosity of the US-Canadian Border for Black Native Americans.” [4] Being the first-ever Black woman to perform professionally on stage in Canada, Greenfield was able to expand her anti-slavery beliefs beyond domestic borders. While in Canada, or in the Us-Canadian border states, she performed her songs that consisted of an anti-slavery agenda. A Brief Memoir of the “Black Swan” begins with, “genius belongs especially to no country, nation, race, or colour.The gift of Providence—it is scattered over the world.” [6] This idea of equality amongst all is conveyed throughout Greenfield’s “Black Swan”, which is a song she performed numerous times at numerous locations.


Moriah, Kristin. A Greater Compass of Voice: Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield and Mary Ann Shadd Cary Navigate Black Performance. Theatre Research in Canada, vol. 41, no. 1. Published October 1st 2020.


Gustafson, Adam. "The story of Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, America’s first Black pop star." The Conversation February 6th 2017.


Stoever, Jennifer Lynn. The Sonic Color Line. New York University Press, 2016.


Chybowski, Julia J.. Becoming the “Black Swan” in Mid-Nineteenth-Century America: Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield's Early Life and Debut Concert Tour. , vol. 67, no. 1. American Musicology Society.


Hine, Darlene Clark. "Elizabeth T. Greenfield, Vocalist born." African American Registry.


A Brief Memoir of the "Black Swan" the American Vocalist.

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