Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield was born into slavery in Natchez, Mississippi somewhere between 1817 and 1826, to Anna Greenfield and a man whose name may have been Taylor. According to an 1854 article in The Tri-Weekly Commercial, “her mother was of Indian descent, her father an African.”
In the early 1820s, Greenfield’s mistress, Elizabeth H. Greenfield, a former plantation owner who moved to Philadelphia after divorcing her second husband and emancipated her slaves. E.H. Greenfield worked with the American Emancipation Society to send 18 formerly enslaved residents of the Greenfield plantation, including Anna Greenfield and two of her daughters, to Liberia on August 2, 1831, aboard the brig Criterion.
Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield remained in Philadelphia. She studied music as a child.
In about 1851, Greenfield began to sing at private parties, debuting at the Buffalo Musical Association. From 1851 to 1853 she toured as managed by Colonel J. H. Wood, a supporter of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, who would not allow black patrons into her concerts.
In 1853, Greenfield debuted at Metropolitan Hall in New York City, which held an audience of 4,000—white patrons only. After the concert, Greenfield apologized to her own people for their exclusion from the performance and gave a concert to benefit the Home of Aged Colored Persons and the Colored Orphan Asylum. She went to London and performed there under the patronage of the Duchess of Sutherland and Harriet Beecher Stowe. She even performed for Queen Victoria in 1854.
Returning to the United States, she toured and conducted a Philadelphia music studio. She taught students. In the 1860s she created an opera troupe which she directed. Greenfield died in Philadelphia of paralysis on March 31, 1876. She was a member of the Philadelphia Shiloh Baptist Church.
Greenfield was dubbed “The Black Swan,” a play on Jenny Lind’s sobriquet, “The Swedish Nightingale).
Greenfield paved the way for a host of black female concert singers, from Sissieretta Jones to Audra McDonald. In 1921, the musician and music publisher Harry Pace named the first successful black-owned record company, Black Swan Records, in her honor.