With Black Swan, Harry Pace strove to start a new kind of record company…
Activist and music publisher Harry Pace launched Black Swan in 1921, believing that making records represented an important form of social and economic power. With Black Swan, he strove to start a new kind of record company, which combined the powers of music and business in the cause of racial uplift and the fight for social justice. He conceived Black Swan with two interrelated goals. Musically, the company would issue records by African Americans in all genres—not just the popular styles most commonly associated with African Americans, such as blues, ragtime, and comic songs, but “serious” music as well, including opera, spirituals, and classical music. The effect of such a catalog would be to challenge stereotypes about African Americans, promote African Americans’ cultural development, and refute racist arguments about African-American barbarism. At the same time, the company would be a model of small-business development, inspiring and instructing African Americans in capital accumulation and the potential for economic self-determination.
Despite the rapid rise and fall of this unique company, many of its goals were achieved, at least for a time. Black Swan issued more than 180 recordings in a wide range of styles, sold hundreds of thousands of discs, and distributed them around the United States and abroad, finding favor among and beyond African-American consumers. Black Swan launched the recording careers of Fletcher Henderson, Ethel Waters, Trixie Smith, and Alberta Hunter, and put out records by a host of talented musicians unlikely to have found other recording opportunities. Meanwhile, the company emerged as a prominent and influential black-owned business, and, as a manufacturer, distinguished itself even from other black-owned companies by having rare control of its manufacturing capital.
This is not, then, a typical Harlem Renaissance story, and even suggests how misleading the term Harlem Renaissance often is. In the 1920s, a surge in activity among writers, visual artists, and musicians took place not only in Harlem but in African-American communities around the country, and it represented wholly new circumstances and opportunities, not a “rebirth” in any meaningful way. Many African Americans were radicalized by World War I and began the postwar period, in the words of the Chicago Defender, with a host of “new thoughts, new ideas, new aspirations.” This surge of newness energized not only the arts—as the term Harlem Renaissance often connotes—but all forms of social, political, and economic activism, often simultaneously. Black Swan represented the effect of just this kind of ferment, bringing together a range of activist impulses. Enmeshed in both the politics of culture and the culture of politics, Black Swan grew out of the particular conditions and opportunities of New York but sought to serve the interests of “the race” everywhere.