Dominion of New York

Black History Month

February 1, 2012

Keepers of the Dream: Portraits of Free Black Northerners, 1787-1865

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Written by: Kelly Virella


ach day of Black History Month we’re sharing a new story of one of our forgotten ancestors, culled from the book Speak Out in Thunder Tones: Letters and Other Writings by Black Northerners, 1787-1865. All are pioneers, with firsts ranging from the first black newspaper, to the first black person admitted to practice law before the U.S. Supreme Court. Many knew each other and their lives and politics intersected in a variety of ways. Grab a copy of the book from your public library and follow along with us as we explore their backstories.

14. Elizabeth T. Greenfield

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Elizabeth T. Greenfield photo source: New York Public Library.

(1817-1876) Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield was born a slave in Natchez, Mississippi, but freed as a child by her mistress, who became a Quaker. Eventually, Greenfield became a singing virtuoso whose talent gained her fame as far away as Europe and made her the target of racial antagonism.
Greenfield probably began singing in Philadelphia churches after moving there in 1836. According to legend, she discovered her talent after she attended a concert given by Jenny Lind, "the Swedish Nightingale." According to Martin Delany:

"She went home. She stole an opportunity when no one listened; let out her voice, when [behold!] she found her strains four notes above Sweden's favored Nightingale. She descended, when lo! she found her tones three notes below! Now she ranks second to no vocalist in the world. The Black Swan is singing to fine fashionable houses and bids fair to stand unrivalled in the world of song."

In 1851, after performing a concert in Buffalo, she gained national fame and earned the name "Black Swan," a moniker likening her to the "White Swan," the Irish-born Catherine Hayes. In 1853, she performed in New York City for an audience of 2,000 at Metropolitan Hall, which barred other blacks from attending the concert. Greenfield's appearance at Metropolitan Hall was so controversial that it prompted arson threats against the theater. One New York news organization decided against running its profile of the singer, because of the hatred she inspired. That same year, Greenfield performed in London and went on to do other shows in England and Ireland, including an 1854 concert for Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace. After her time in Europe, she returned to Philadelphia. Becoming a vocal teacher, she occasionally gave concerts. -- Sources: New York Historical Society, African-American Registry, Speak out in Thunder Tones, Letters and Other Writings by Black Northerners 1787-1865

About the Author

Kelly Virella
Kelly Virella lives in an East Harlem walk-up with her husband, her bicycle and her books. She's worked as a journalist for 11 years and started this website during the summer of 2011. She fell in love with New York City during her first visit here as a 16-year-old and finally made good on her promise to move here in April 2010.


New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly, left to right. Photo courtesy of Flickr/Azipaybarah