January 30, 2023

This company paved the way!

Black Swan Records is the second black-owned company to enter the record business but remains one of the most influential companies ever founded east of Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Although Broome Special Phonograph Records is believed to be the first black-owned record label in the United States, having formed just two years earlier, Black Swan Records was the first widespread label owned, operated, and marketed to African Americans. It gave trained singers and musicians not otherwise picked up by white-owned record labels an opportunity to increase visibility. Shortly after the Tulsa massacre, it was Black Swan Records that still boasted “Open for Business” signs, and it was the same record company that paved the way for black artists excited to express their own experiences.

While visions of what kind of black music should be promoted ultimately divided black consumers, Pace was desperate to keep his company and mission afloat. White pressing companies refused to do business with Pace, so he bought his own pressing company, leaving him in debt. The problem was exacerbated when the major white-owned record labels like Columbia and Paramount also began promoting blues music, putting the label on its decline. At one point, Pace even began releasing recordings by white artists under black pseudonyms to try to keep the company afloat, but it didn’t work.

Pace eventually sold the company and found a side career in insurance before becoming a Chicago attorney. Pace remained active in the movement as a member of the NAACP and Urban League as a mentor JET and ebony Magazine owner John H. Johnso and the fight against Chicago’s racially discriminatory laws that prevented blacks from living in certain areas. Pace was responsible for bringing the case of Hansberry v. Bringing Lee to the US Supreme Court in 1940, where he fought and won.

Despite his professional commitment to black equality, his personal life looked a little different and multiple records show that Pace may have passed, some documents showing him as “Negro” while others have listed him as White. In fact, it would be 60 years after his death at the age of 59 before his descendants would discover that Pace was in fact black.

“Growing up I identified as white, I was never told I was anything else but White… [I was told] that my grandfather was a successful businessman, had a career in insurance and was a partner in a law firm. We never knew about Black Swan Records,” said Pace’s grandson Peter, who was 62 when he discovered his true racial identity.

Despite the politics of the time, Pace’s contributions are undeniable, and Black Swan Records’ model would serve as a blueprint for many more black-owned record labels. To learn more about this groundbreaking label, here are 5 things you should know about Black Swan Records, one of the first black-owned record labels, courtesy of San Francisco Classical Voice:

The record label was founded by Harry Pace in Harlem.

Harry Pace started out as a Senior Partner at Pace and Handy Music Publishing Company with business partner WC Handy. As the company dissolved, Pace formed Black Swan Records in the spring of 1921 amid high demand in the new record industry. George C. Broome had previously made history as the first black entrepreneur to start a new venture in the industry by forming the Broome Special Phonograph Record Company. However, the company only existed for nine months. Pace followed this model and founded Black Swan Records in Harlem with a focus on finding artists to produce classical music.

Pace aspired to release music that would uplift the black race.

It was Pace’s idea that centering a label around classical performing arts would be a good way to uplift the black race. Pace drew this idea from the WEB Du Bois organizational principle of a talented 10th he promoted in the 20th. The idea was that the race would be led by an “elite group of well-educated, upper-class black men and women.” Pace viewed himself as a member of the talented tenth and sought out artists who embodied these qualities and would use them in the service of artistic excellence.

The NAACP was closely intertwined with the record label’s success.

Black Swan’s board of directors included several professional executives, including Harlem real estate pioneer John E. Nail, insurance and banking executive Truman K. Gibson, physician and real estate developer Godfrey Nurse, Chicago socialite Viola Bibb, pharmacist Matthew V. Boutte, Business entrepreneur WH Willis, accountant John P. Quarter and WEB Du Bois, founder of the NAACP.

According to NPR, Pace helped found the Atlanta chapter of the NAACP and served as its first president, remaining true to his commitment to the movement and remaining an active member for most of his life.

The performance of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” was released on Black Swan Records.

Black Swan was responsible for distributing the 1923 recording of James Weldon Johnson and James Rosemond Johnson’s anthem Lift Every Voice and Sing. It was performed by The Manhattan Harmony Four and became the anthem of WEB Du Bois’ NAACP, dubbed “The Negro National Anthem”. The song embodied Pace’s ideological vision for Black Swan Records and became an anthem of racial pride in an otherwise dark time when black people were struggling through the terror that accompanied the Great Migration and the destruction of Black Wall Street in the Greenwood borough of Oklahoma .

Black Swan had an elite roster of performers.

“Pace built a strong team to run the label: jazz musician Fletcher Henderson was his musical director and bandleader, and classical composer William Grant Still was his arranger. The Black Swan roster included acclaimed blues singers Alberta Hunter and Trixie Smith, and highly influential pianist James P. Johnson,” NPR reports.

Thank you for everything Mr. Pace. Because of you we can!

5 things you should know about Black Swan Records, one of the first black owned record labels. Photo by Harry Pace. Photo courtesy of Peter Pace/NPR

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