When 'The Black Swan' visited Rochester, 1863
Famed Black singer Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield made a stop here on her final national tour.
From Amy Hahn's book, "Hidden History of Rochester, Minnesota."
Located at 301 Broadway Avenue North, the three-story red-brick Avalon Hotel building is one of the Med City’s most important historic landmarks.
Originally called the Northwestern Hotel, it was built in 1919 by Sam Sternberg and catered to Jewish visitors, providing overnight accommodations and a kosher restaurant during a time when many Jews were denied entrance into hotels and restaurants. In
1944, transplant Verne Manning bought the structure and renamed it the Avalon Hotel. He opened its doors to Black visitors, a majority of whom were Mayo Clinic patients, becoming the first hotel in the city to do so.
Many of his guests were famous Black musicians, entertainers and athletes. But long before the Avalon Hotel cemented its legacy as an important figure in Black history, its address paid host to a famous Black singer, a visit that received enthusiastic acclaim and proved popular enough to deem an encore presentation.
On the evening of October 1, 1863, Broadway House, was filled to bursting with Rochester residents eager to witness a rare performance by the “Black Swan,” the stage name of Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, a famed Black singer who was in the remaining months of her final national tour. Broadway House, the predecessor of the Northwestern and Avalon Hotels, was an important building in Rochester, temporarily serving as the Olmsted County Courthouse while a new building was being constructed. It later fell victim to a fire.
A month before her concert, the September 5 Rochester City Post raved about Greenfield’s performances in Saint Paul: "The 'Black Swan' has been charming denizens of Saint Paul and vicinity the past few evenings with her inimitable song. Critics who attend her entertainments for the purpose of finding fault are among the first to be melted."
They listen, says the Saint Paul Press, and are conquered. Miss Greenfield’s peculiarities consist of immense compass, a mellow flexibility of tone and an enunciation that never fails to reach the hearts, as well as the ears, of all listeners.
A few days before her performance, the September 30 Rochester Republican encouraged residents to attend with a short paragraph, stating, “If you have a little spare change and wish a good entertainment, go and hear the Black Swan at the Court House tomorrow evening. You will not fail of getting the worth of your money.”
Greenfield traveled a difficult road to achieve the aplomb and respect she enjoyed during her 1863 tour. Born as an enslaved girl in Natchez, Mississippi, she was freed, along with her mother, sisters and several others, by her mistress, Mrs. Elizabeth H. Greenfield, after she divorced her plantation-owner husband and
moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
By all accounts, Greenfield and her namesake were close, the budding singer choosing to stay with her after her family returned to Africa. Mrs. Greenfield encouraged her singing, leaving a substantial amount of money to her upon death. However, the will was contested, and the “Black Swan” found herself without an income. In addition to her lack of funds, she had difficulty obtaining a musical education due to the color of her skin. But she was determined to pursue a musical career, and her concert’s program booklet gives a detailed biographical sketch:
“By indomitable perseverance, she surmounted difficulties almost invincible. At first, she taught herself crude accompaniments to her songs, and intuitively perceiving the agreement or disagreement of them, improvised and repeated, until there was heard floating upon the air a very lovely song of one that had a pleasant voice and could play well.”
She befriended a daughter of prominent physician who agreed to be her accompanist; the two performed at upper-class homes for various social events.
But it wasn’t until Greenfield journeyed to Buffalo, New York, on a riverboat that her big break occurred. While aboard, her singing caught the notice of wealthy influential couple who arranged a concert. The Northwestern Bulletin wrote on March 5, 1925, that critics “were loud in their acclaim and termed her the ‘African Nightingale,’ as an offset of Jenny Lind, then at the zenith of her career and called the ‘Swedish Nightingale.’”
After this introductory performance, Greenfield embarked on a national tour, which included singing at New York City’s Metropolitan Hall. She also traveled across the Atlantic, where “her singing took England by storm. She was commanded to appear before the queen and the nobility, who gave testimony of her wonderful gift. Her trip abroad was a triumph, both artistically and financially.”
During her stay in England, Greenfield also studied under Sir George Smart, Queen Victoria’s royal organist, at the Royal Academy of Music. During a performance at Stafford House in London, Harriet Beecher Stowe, an enthusiastic attendee, wrote in her Sunny Memories of Foreign Lands, “The choicest of the elite were there,” and Greenfield, performing with several singers, “had a pleasing dark face, wore a black velvet headdress and white carnelian earrings, a black moire antique silk, made high in the neck, with white lace falling sleeves and white gloves. A certain gentleness of manner and self-possession, the result of universal kindness shown her, sat well upon her.”
Stowe described how Greenfield’s voice, “with its keen, searching fire, its penetrating vibrant quality, its timbre, as the French have it, cut its way like a Damascus blade to the heart. It was the more touching from occasional rusticities and artistic defects, which showed that she had received no culture from art. She sang the ballad, ‘Old Folks at Home,’ giving one verse in soprano and the other in the tenor voice.” Her switch from soprano to tenor enthralled the crowd, and it “was rapturously encored.”
By the time Greenfield gave her 1863 Rochester performance, she was a known entity in the concert scene, and Rochester City Post editors applauded her performance in the October 3 edition of the paper: “The concert of the ebony lady at the Court House, on Thursday evening, was fully attended—so much so that Col. Wood, her popular manager, was induced to repeat the entertainment last [Friday] evening, with an entire change of programme, and with a reduction in price of twenty-five cents. It is rare that our people have an opportunity to attend a first-class concert, and when they do, they are not slow in improving their chance.”
There was no doubt that Greenfield had impressed Rochester society with her beautiful voice and gained many fans. When she died a decade later at the age of 68, the Rochester Post commented on her death, stating she had been “famous throughout the country,” once performing in Rochester. And although the Black Swan never visited the city again, she is intricately woven into the history of Rochester and 301 North Broadway Avenue.
About the author:
Amy Jo Hahn is a native of southeast Minnesota. She has a bachelor’s degree from Winona State University, a master’s degree from Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication and a historic preservation certificate from Bucks County Community College, where she was awarded the college’s Historic Preservation Award, given annually to one student for outstanding work in historic preservation. Her nonfiction work has appeared in several publications. Her first book for The History Press was Lost Rochester, Minnesota in 2017. She has worked as a magazine editor, a television news producer, an online content writer, and a college instructor. She is a managing editor for Mayo Clinic, where she has won several national awards for health education writing.
Visit Amy at www.facebook.com/amyhahnauthor , www.amy-hahn.com and @amyhahnauthor.
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