Portrait of Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield courtesy of the New York Public Library
Wait, what? How are PBS’s Sanditon series, now in its 3rd and final season, and Black history in Buffalo connected? In the episode that aired on March 26, 2023, Arthur Parker invites American soprano Elizabeth Greenhorn to perform in Sanditon, a fictional fishing village turned resort town, for the King, who ends up giving his regrets. She decides to go on stage anyway, and we learn that she is African-American.
This character is based on real-life American soprano Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, who was born into slavery in Mississippi around 1820 and began her career in 1851. When you’re writing fiction like Sanditon, which is set around 1817, you may use artistic license.
Greenfield was emancipated as a child by her enslaver, a woman, possibly Quaker, who raised and educated her in Philadelphia. In Buffalo, Greenfield was invited to stay in the home of a Mrs. Gen. P., who supported and encouraged her musical education. According to the anonymous author of “The Black Swan at Home and Abroad, or, A Biographical Sketch of Miss Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, the American Vocalist,” (Philadelphia: Wm. S. Young, 1855), Greenfield’s host was Gen. (and Mrs.) Potter. This was most likely Judge Heman Potter (1786-1854), who lived on Niagara Square and was called General Potter. According to FindaGrave, Mrs. Potter was Electa Miller Potter (1790-1854).
Greenfield made her stage debut in Buffalo at Townsend Hall, corner of Main & Swan, on October 22, 1851. At this time, she was nicknamed The Black Swan, a name that followed her for the rest of her musical career.
Buffalo Daily Republic, October 18, 1851, Page 3
Her repertoire consisted of opera and classical composers, defying the expectations of white audiences of the day, who assumed that such music was beyond the capacity of Black performers.
After her debut, Greenfield performed in Rochester, Lockport, Utica, Albany, Troy, Boston, Columbus, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Toronto, Syracuse, Brattleboro, and other North American cities. In 1853, she went on tour in Europe and on May 10, 1854, sang for Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace. She was the first African-American to perform before British royalty.
After calling Buffalo home at the beginning of her career, Greenfield settled in Philadelphia, where she operated a music studio and died in 1876.