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Black Facts for March 31st

1876 - Greenfield, Elizabeth Taylor (1819-1876)

Born a slave in 1819 in Natchez, Mississippi, Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield had little reason to dream of the life that would eventually become her own.  Because of a series of unlikely circumstances and her own relentless efforts she would eventually become known as the first African American singer to gain recognition in both Europe and the United States.

Long before her life of fame, the child Elizabeth was taken to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania by a Quaker who had freed her slaves.  Continuing to serve the Mistress for whom she had been named, Elizabeth acted as a maid and companion.  She also provided entertainment for the guests of her elderly namesake.  Upon the death of her Mistress, Greenfield supported herself by giving public and private performances. Greenfield soon gained recognition throughout the Northeast for her performances.  She was dubbed The Black Swan.

In 1853, Greenfield traveled to Europe for engagements in England, Scotland, and Ireland. When an unscrupulous manager abandoned her in London, penniless Greenfield took matters into her own hands.  Seeking out a prominent fellow countrywoman also traveling in London, Elizabeth introduced herself to Harriet Beecher Stowe.  With Stowe’s help Greenfield was soon performing for English gentry. Before returning to the U.S. she sang in Buckingham Palace in a command performance for Queen Victoria.

During the Civil War Elizabeth Greenfield appeared alongside speakers such as Frederick Douglass and Frances E.W. Harper.  She also traveled throughout the country raising funds for various colored aged and orphan societies.  Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield died in Philadelphia on March 31, 1876.


No Author Given, The Black Swan at Home and Abroad; or A BiographicalSketch of Miss Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield (Philadelphia: W.S. Young,Printer, 1855); Edward T. and Janet W. James, eds., Notable AmericanWomen: 1607-1950; A Biographical Dictionary Vol. II (Cambridge: HarvardUniversity Press, 1971), pp. 87-89.

University of Vermont


1797 - Olaudah Equiano

Olaudah Equiano , (born c. 1745, Essaka [in present-day Nigeria]?—died March 31, 1797, London, England), self-proclaimed West African sold into slavery and later freed. His autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano; or, Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself (1789), with its strong abolitionist stance and detailed description of life in Nigeria, was so popular that in his lifetime it ran through nine English editions and one U.S. printing and was translated into Dutch, German, and Russian. At the turn of the 21st century, newly discovered documents suggesting that Equiano may have been born in North America raised questions, still unresolved, about whether his accounts of Africa and the Middle Passage are based on memory, reading, or a combination of the two.

According to his own account, Equiano was kidnapped at age 11 and taken to the West Indies. From there he went to Virginia, where he was purchased by a sea captain, Michael Henry Pascal, with whom he traveled widely. He received some education before he bought his own freedom in 1766. After he settled in England, he became an active abolitionist, agitating and lecturing against the cruelty of British slave owners in Jamaica. He briefly was commissary to Sierra Leone for the Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor; his concerns for the settlers—some 500 to 600 freed slaves—and for their ill treatment before their journey ultimately led to his replacement.

Publication of his autobiography was aided by British abolitionists, including Hannah More, Josiah Wedgwood, and John Wesley, who were collecting evidence on the sufferings of slaves. In that book and in his later Miscellaneous Verses… (1789), he idealizes Africa and shows great pride in the African way of life, while attacking those Africans who trafficked in slavery (a perspective further shown by his setting forth not only the injustices and humiliations endured by slaves but also his own experience of kindness, that of his master and a community of English

2017 - Coleman, William T. Jr. (1920-2017)

William T. Coleman, Jr., a prominent Republican lawyer and businessman, served as Secretary of Transportation under President Gerald Ford.  Born in 1920 to a middle class Philadelphia, Pennsylvania family, Coleman attended a segregated elementary school.  When he moved to Germantown High School he confronted racism as one of only seven blacks in the school.  Teachers thought his good grades would lead to a career as a chauffeur.  Coleman had other plans; he wanted to be a lawyer.

Coleman, an undergraduate member of Phi Beta Kappa, graduated summa cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania in 1941.  He then entered Harvard Law School, but left after a year to join the United States Army Air Corps.  After World War II, Coleman returned to law school, and became the first African American to serve on the Harvard Law Review.  He graduated magna cum laude in 1946.  Initially no large law firms would hire Coleman because he was black, so he landed his first job as a United States appellate court law clerk.  In 1948 William T. Coleman became the U.S. Supreme Court’s first black law clerk.  He married Lovida Hardin in 1945.

After clerking for the Supreme Court, in 1949 Coleman joined the first of what would be a series of high profile law firms.  While working in New York, he met Thurgood Marshall.  Over the next few years the two worked together arguing a series of cases to lay groundwork for an assault on school segregation.  Coleman coauthored the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s (NAACP) brief for Brown v. Board of Education and accompanied Marshall to oral arguments at the Supreme Court in 1954.  Coleman remained active in civil rights throughout his career.  He argued McLaughlin v. Florida (overturning prohibitions on interracial cohabitation) in 1964 and Bob Jones University v. U.S. (upholding the government’s power to revoke the tax-exempt status of discriminatory religious institutions) in 1983.  

Coleman became a presidential adviser in 1959 when he accepted President Dwight