Monday, September 6, 2021 WNYC Radiolab and National Public Radio’s June and July 2021 podcast series "The Vanishing of Harry Pace" illuminated the extraordinary lost story

Images from The Vanishing of Harry Pace podcast | Credit: Bill Doggett

September 5, 2021

Bill Doggett

WNYC Radiolab and National Public Radio’s June and July 2021 podcast series The Vanishing of Harry Pace illuminated the extraordinary lost story of one of America’s most important, versatile, yet complicated Black business entrepreneurs in the first 40 years of the 20th Century

Harry Pace, founder of Black Swan Records, the nation’s second Black-owned entrepreneurial venture into the recording business, was the most important and influential African American business entrepreneur east of the mecca of Black entrepreneurism in America at the turn of the century, Greenwood, Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Black Swan Records was a beacon of promise, providing visibility through sound recordings for a generation of classically trained singers, musicians, and composers emerging out of the shadow of the Great Migration and the First World War.

Obscure and forgotten in 2021, these gifted artists were cultural symbols of an earlier Black racial pride who had been rejected and forbidden to record by a white recording industry dominated by Victor, Columbia, and Edison.

In a post-First World War era fraught with violent racial animus, Harry Pace’s Black Swan Records put out “open for business” signs within weeks of May 30-June 1, 1921, when Greenwood was destroyed by vigilante white supremacist mobs.

A collage over a background image of Tulsa’s destroyed Greenwood neighborhood on June 1, 1921, with overlay images of Harry Pace and Black Swan recording artists Revella Hughes (far left), Antoinette Garnes (far right),  and C. Carroll Clark (center left, opposite Pace) | Credit: Bill Doggett

Black Swan Records illuminated the path forward for emerging Black classically trained artists by setting an example for the white-owned major labels such as Victor Records, which invited the young promising singers Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson to make sound recordings, which would launch their careers, in 1924 and 1925.

Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson

A complex story of dissonances in ideas about race, music, and the future of culture in 1921-23, Harry Pace’s Black Swan Records is also symbolic of 2021 when the performing arts industry’s diffidence in confronting a long history of racial discrimination was called to a reckoning, in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd.

Booker T. Washington, Atlanta Exposition Address 

Founded in spring 1921, Black Swan Records was not the first Black-owned venture into the new bustling phonograph record industry. Between 1919-1920, George C. Broome, a Black entrepreneur and classical music devotee in Medford, Massachusetts, founded the Broome Special Phonograph Record Company. Though only in business for nine months, Broome created a critical yet elite opportunity for a small group of African American musicians, who were classically trained and recorded them in repertoire that was largely Eurocentric. There were important exceptions to this in the recordings of the important Black Canadian composer and pianist R. Nathaniel Dett in his own material, Harry Thackery Burleigh, baritone, composer, and friend of Antonin Dvořák, and a political sound recording recitation of Booker T. Washington of his Atlanta Exposition address.

Broome had worked with the pioneering Black tenor Roland Hayes, who lived in Boston, creating a sales outlet for Roland Hayes Columbia Vanity edition homemade recordings that were only available by mail order.  

By the time that Harry Pace founded Black Swan Records in Harlem, Hayes had triumphed in a European tour of 1920 and, by the mid-1920s, had become an in-demand fixture headlining The Boston Symphony Concert Artists Group.

The success of Hayes is symbolic and acts as a metaphor for the idea of “racial uplift,” the 20th century ideology of the Black elite who advocated that the way forward for African Americans faced with the extraordinary racial animus of the Jim Crow South was to prove themselves in the arts and professional fields to be as accomplished and successful as their white counterparts. 

R. Nathaniel Dett performs “Mammy” from his Magnolia Suite,  Broome #A and #55

Black excellence in these metrics would, in this ideological viewpoint, prove to white America that Blacks deserved greater respect and were interested in assimilation and integration into the larger sociocultural and political American fabric.

This idea of racial uplift through the classical performing arts is at the very center of Harry Pace’s personal motivations in creating Black Swan Records. Pace’s predilection for “classic music” and the promotion of musicians and artists who would be beacons of uplifting the race through artistic excellence is tied to W.E.B. Du Bois’s idea that was both intellectual and an organizing principle for Black Americans at the dawn of the 20th Century. Du Bois’s “the talented tenth” paradigm was that the Black race would be led forward by an elite group of upper class, well-educated Black men and women already more closely assimilated to white American cultural and business norms. Harry Pace was one of the greatest examples of Du Bois’s “talented tenth.”

In 2021, a reassessment Du Bois’s racial uplift, embraced by an upper-class Black elite trying to lift the status of Black people in a lynching-prone, segregated Jim Crow American society could also be interpreted as denial.

This denial in the face of racial animus is a manifestation of internalized colonialist ideas about the inherent racial inferiority of “The Colored Race.” The ideas of racial inferiority of Black and Asian races as well as racial superiority of white and Anglo-Saxon peoples that had been promulgated since slavery were scientifically theorized by the eugenics movement of the early 20th century.

The symbolism and iconography of racial uplift is also prominent in the choice of the name of the new Black-owned record company, Black Swan. Black Swan was a reference and a dedication to the renowned African American classical operatic singer of the 1850s-70s, Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield. Greenfield was described in the press as having a voice like a swan.

Greenfield’s artistry during the Antebellum era anticipated the idea of racial uplift 50 years earlier in a statement of the determination of a free aspiring African American woman to define an idea of personal dignity and self-empowerment through music and excellence in the performing arts.

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