Born Elizabeth Taylor, the exact date of Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield’s birth is unknown, with various sources listing different years. She was born into slavery somewhere reportedly around the second decade of the 1800s in the region of Natchez, Mississippi to mother Anna and father Taylor (his listed last name). The mistress of the grounds, the widowed Mrs. Holliday Greenfield, moved to Philadelphia in the 1820s and took the young Elizabeth with her. Holliday eventually became a Quaker, freeing her slaves. Though her parents moved overseas to Liberia, Elizabeth continued to live with Holliday for a time as a child and later as an adult, taking her last name.
Named ‘Black Swan’ Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield had a passion for song, becoming a church vocalist and learning how to play instruments like the harp and piano on her own. She was only able to receive limited musical training due to racist ideology but was nonetheless able to develop a stunning voice, with an apparently multi-octave range and the ability to sing soprano, tenor and bass. It is believed Greenfield began performing for private events by the 1840s.
In the fall of 1851, upon travelling to Buffalo, New York to attend a concert by fellow vocalist Jenny Lind, Greenfield was later able to give a performance of her own. With accolades coming in from the newspaper press, she went on a multiple city tour the following year and would come to be hailed as the first nationally recognized African-American concert singer, eventually receiving the same acclaim in parts of Europe as well. For Greenfield, the media initially came up with the nickname “African Nightingale” and, later, “Black Swan.”
Travels to England Despite the accolades for her skill, Greenfield also faced demeaning write-ups from parts of the press. When she was scheduled to perform at Metropolitan Hall in New York City in the spring of 1853, the threat of arson came in. Still, the concert was a success, and Greenfield embarked on a tour of England.
Upon her arrival, however, she was soon forced to leave her manager due to his unwillingness to provide for her expenses. She contacted Harriet Beecher Stowe, and the activist arranged for Greenfield to meet the Duchess of Sutherland, who become her patron along with the duchesses of Norfolk and Argyle. Greenfield also came to work with and receive tutelage from royal musical advisor George Smart. She thus gave a Buckingham Palace concert for Queen Victoria in May 1854, in addition to general touring.