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Black History Month – 19th Century

Lately the words “Black Swan” are more closely associated with Hollywood, but those familiar with the history of performing arts in New York City might know them in reference to Elizabeth T. Greenfield and her memorable performance at Metropolitan Hall in 1853.

Metropolitan Hall, Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, June 1882.

Greenfield was born a slave in Natchez, Mississippi in the early years of the nineteenth century.  Granted her freedom by her widowed mistress in the 1820s, she arrived in Philadelphia around 1836 and likely began her singing career at church services there.  By 1851 Greenfield’s star had risen, through a debut performance in Buffalo that brought comparisons to the famous Jenny Lind, or “Swedish Nightingale.”  Still, her moniker “Black Swan” was born of another celebrated singer at the time, the Irish-born “White Swan,” Catherine Hayes.

Despite a substantial audience of over 2,000 and a suitably impressed public, Greenfield’s New York performance on the March 31, 1853 was not without controversy.  Metropolitan Hall, where the concert took place, chose to block African-Americans from attending, perhaps the result of arson threats it had received for putting a black performer on stage.

Clipping from page 220, April 2, 1853 proof issue of The illustrated News.

This angry reaction to Greenfield’s concert provides a likely explanation for the rather unusual decision by The Illustrated News demonstrated by two of the images shown here.  Even though the above wood engraving of Greenfield is clipped from The Illustrated News and bears the date April 2, 1853, the same page on the library’s intact copy of the same issue contains no such image (as shown below).  The reason?  The Greenfield wood engraving was from a proof, and presumably the negative public reaction caused The Illustrated News to cut both the illustration and description.  So it was for a woman about whom Harriet Beecher Stowe in Sunny Memories of Foreign Lands commented “Had she had culture equal to her voice and ear, no singer of any country could have surpassed her.”

Page 220 of The Illustrated News, April 2, 1853.
Creative: Tronvig Group