With February just behind us, teachers took a day, a week, or even the entire month to celebrate the achievements by famous and lesser-known African Americans in their classrooms. Most students know about Martin Luther King Jr., Jackie Robinson, and Harriet Tubman, but what about the lesser-known African Americans. Do you know Elizabeth Greenfield? In honor of Black History Month, I would like to give you a little history lesson on one of the lesser-known African Americans.
Elizabeth Greenfield was a black opera singer in the 1850s. At the time, only whites sang opera. This was because many whites believed blacks could only make simple music, not art. Greenfield changed how people thought about black people’s abilities to sing opera. Opera was very popular in the U.S. before the Civil War. European opera singers like Jenny Lind came to the U.S. and huge crowds went to watch them. Lind was very popular. Greenfield had a very different life than Lind. At one time, Greenfield had been a slave.
Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield was born as a slave in Mississippi around 1820. But her owner was against slavery and set her free. Greenfield taught herself how to sing and began to perform in New York. There, she was given the nickname “the Black Swan.” Lind’s nickname was “the Swedish Nightingale.” A man named Joseph Wood became Greenfield’s promoter in 1851. Wood was a well-known racist and is said to have supported the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. These laws let slaves be captured if they escaped and then made sure they were returned to their owners. Wood would not allow black people to attend Greenfield’s concerts. Greenfield’s African-American supporters did not like this. In the 1800s, minstrel shows were one of the most popular forms of entertainment. They combined acting, singing and dancing. The shows were performed by white people in makeup pretending to be black people. The white actors painted their faces black. This act was known as “blackface.” The shows were racist and made fun of how black people sang and danced.
Greenfield was such a great singer that she made people rethink the talents of African-Americans. Many people agreed that Greenfield was very talented. However, they couldn’t accept her talent because of their racism against black singers. One fix was to describe Greenfield as talented but not natural. Greenfield made her New York City premiere in March 1853. She performed in one of the largest concert halls. It was called Metropolitan Hall, and it was built for Lind. No black people were allowed to watch Greenfield perform. People laughed at Greenfield when she took to the stage. Even though some laughed at first, once people heard her singing they agreed that her talent and vocal power were astonishing. After her American tour, she went to Europe and had a very successful tour there. Greenfield opened the way for some whites to start realizing that blacks were as talented as whites. (Credit; By Smithsonian.com)
I still think it is important to know about Martin Luther King Jr. and Harriet Tubman, but I also think it is important to broaden our horizons and research those who are not widely known like Elizabeth Greenfield. I am looking forward to sharing with my students about African Americans that may get overlooked like Elizabeth Greenfield.
~Mrs. Belk, Special Education Teacher