Born a slave in Natchez, Mississippi between 1817 and 1824, the life of an unlikely star was born. In 1820 Elizabeth moved to Philadelphia with the widow of her slave master, Mrs. Holiday Greenfield. Elizabeth gained her freedom when Holiday Greenfield became a Quaker and freed her slaves. She chose to stay with Mrs. Holiday in America while her parents moved to Liberia. She eventually took Mrs. Holiday’s last name after living with her into adulthood. Elizabeth found her calling as she fell in love with singing and music. She taught herself how to play the harp and the piano. Because of her race she faced constant rejection from vocal trainers. But Elizabeth pressed on and developed a voice that would change music. Her voice was labeled as multi-octave, meaning she could sing soprano, tenor and bass. By 1850 Elizabeth began her singing career and never looked back.
In 1851 she made her concert debut at the Buffalo Musical Association. Her next step was a tour from 1851 to 1853 which gained her much acclaim. She became the first nationally recognized African-American concert singer in both America and Europe. Because of her brilliant performances she was named “Black Swan” by the media. But Elizabeth’s great performances didn’t protect her from racism. She often faced harsh criticism from the press and threats to sabotage her performances. In 1853 her performance at New York’s Metropolitan Hall was threatened by an arsonist. The show went on as scheduled. Following the show she gave a benefit concert to The Home of Aged Colored Persons and the Colored Orphan Asylum. Even in the face of adversity, she showed her will and her love for her community.
Elizabeth arrived in England in 1853 to tour the country. She faced issues with her manager that caused her to sever their relationship. Because of the breakup she had to reach out to Harriet Beecher Stowe for financial help. Stowe helped Elizabeth gain financial backing from the duchesses of Sutherland, Norfolk and Argyle. Because of her new acquaintances, Elizabeth was able to receive professional training from the royal musical adviser George Smart. Her skills became so polished that she was invited to perform for Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace in 1854. Elizabeth Greenfield was known as the first black performer to perform for the English elite. Her success and new found fame allowed her to become a highly desired performer. She returned to the United States in the summer of 1954 and continued her career into the 1860’s. She would often have benefit concerts for charities supporting black people. She later became a teacher and helped shape the careers of Thomas J. Bowers and Carrie Thomas. Elizabeth Greenfield died in Philadelphia in 1876 as a legend in the music industry. But because of her race her legacy was kept quiet. To honor the greatness of Elizabeth Greenfield Nathaniel Dett, Fletcher Henderson, Ethel Waters and Trixie Smith, created their record label Black Swan Records. Mrs. Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, we stand on your shoulders.
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