“This Gentle, Charming Mule”: an 1852 compliment to Elizabeth Greenfield

I’m used to all sorts of odd, arcane and sometimes offensive language in my researches: still if the type had been any blurrier, I would have been certain I was reading something wrong. As it was, I read it several times because I could not believe I was reading it right. A black writer, printed in a black newspaper, described Miss Elizabeth Greenfield, the celebrated black songstress and former slave, as “this bird, this gentle charming mule, whose mellow warbling notes had made leaves flutter.”

What on earth?

The context of the article wasn’t too hard to find. In 1852, in Cincinnati, Ohio, black concert-goers with purchased tickets were turned away by white concert-hall managers from their attempt to hear a performance by Miss Greenfield. One wrote to The Cincinnati Atlas about his experience, and this found its way as a reprint into The Voice of the Fugitive, edited and printed by former slave Henry Bibb in Windsor, Canada, (April 8, 1852).

But in trying to decipher the phraseology, I couldn’t find much to go on. The writer admired Miss Greenfield: he was himself black; he clearly did not mean any racial insult. The term which naturally suggested itself to my thinking was that this might be a common corruption of mulatress, widely used at the time to indicate a woman of mixed black-and-white parentage. There were several problems with this, however.

Photographs of Miss Greenfield showed a woman of quite dark complexion, not one who would typically be described as “mixed.” Secondly, hours of searching 19th century slang collections never indicated that “mule” had been used to represent any group of African-Americans, even though the word mulatto was itself derived from the Spanish or Portuguese words for mule. If “mule” was a racial term or designation, it must have been lost, and this would be unusual. Such words tend to stick around and travel down through generations.

I began to wonder if the word had been coined as a personal epithet, as Miss Greenfield was also called “the Black Swan.”

A quick internet search for her as “the gentle mule” turned up nothing, seemingly. But algorithms are strange things. Somewhere, in connection with “the black swan,” and “Elizabeth Greenfield,” a result appeared which discussed British songbirds. And behold:

The hybrid offspring of a canary and a finch is called a mule.

The writer, himself a Victorian and altogether familiar with the Victorian custom of keeping songbirds as pets in captivity, had dubbed Miss Greenfield a songbird!

Mystery solved.

It only needs be added that Miss Greenfield had no control over who was admitted to, or turned away from, her concerts. As an apology to her own, she gave several performances in black venues after the incidents came to her knowledge.

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