The Rise Of The Black Swan, America’s First Black Owned Record Label


Harry Herbert Pace was the founder of the first black record company, Pace Phonograph Corporation which sold recordings under the Black Swan Records label. He was born on January 6, 1884 in Covington, Georgia.  His fatherdied while Harry was still an infant leaving him to be raised by his mother. Pace graduated from elementary school when he was twelve and went on to became valedictorian at Atlanta University.  W.E.B. Du Bois was one of his instructors.  After graduation he worked in a printing company.

In 1912, after moving to Memphis, Pace met W.C. Handy. The two men became friends, writing songs together.  Pace and Handy formed the Pace and Handy Music Company together and work with composers such as William Grant Sill and Fletcher Henderson. Pace moved to New York to manage the sheet music business but later decided to form a record company.

Pace Phonograph Corporation Inc. was founded in March, 1921 with $30,000 in borrowed capital. The label Black Swan Records was named after Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield a famous 19th Century entertainer known as the “Black Swan” for her singing.

Ethel Waters became the first major black artist on the label when she signed a recording contract in the summer of 1921. Her records and subsequent touring brought fame and money to the fledgling company as she played shows with big names such as Louis Armstrong and Joe Smith.

By the summer of 1922 the company which had began in Pace’s basement, now had a staff of 30 employees including its own 8 man orchestra, seven district managers in the major cities, and over 1,000 dealers and agents in locations as diverse as the Philippines and the West Indies.  In its first 11 months it had build the initial $30,000 investment into an income of over $100,000. Pace Phonograph Company was renamed the Black Swan Phonograph Company in 1923. Despite the demand for its records, the Company had not anticipated the advent of radio as a popular medium for listening to music.  Since Pace had not developed connections with radio stations, its music did not reach the airwaves. In December 1923 bankruptcy was declared and the Black Swan catalogue was sold off the following year.

Harry Pace could take some solace however, in the fact that the Black Swan label had opened the door for thousands of black musicians to get recording contracts with the companies that remained after they saw the enormous profit that these artists could generate. A number of Black Swan’s artists went on to successful careers with companies that would never have hired them before.

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  • […] Moving to New York, Hunter’s singer-songwriter career flourished during the 1920s and 1930s. She became involved in several African-American musical revues and launched her recording career with the Black Swan label. […]

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