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Radio Diaries: Harry Pace And The Rise And Fall Of Black Swan Records

Harry Pace started the first major Black-owned record label in the U.S., but his achievements went mostly unnoticed until recently, when his descendants uncovered his secret history."
Courtesy of Peter Pace
Harry Pace started the first major Black-owned record label in the U.S., but his achievements went mostly unnoticed until recently, when his descendants uncovered his secret history."

Updated July 1, 2021 at 6:09 PM ET

A century ago, around the dawn of the Harlem Renaissance, New York City was brimming with music. Black artists like Eubie Blake, Florence Mills and Fats Waller were performing in dance halls and nightclubs including Edmond's Cellar and The Lincoln Theatre.

"Every block between 110th Street and 155th Street buzzed with creative energy," says journalist Paul Slade, author of Black Swan Blues: the hard rise and brutal fall of America's first black-owned record label.

Despite that energy, when it came to recording and selling music by Black artists, the opportunities were limited. White-owned record labels — Columbia, Victor, Aeolian, Edison, Paramount — recorded few Black artists at the time, and when they did, it was often limited to novelty songs and minstrelsy.

"They were making a fortune off these negative portrayals of Black people," says Bill Doggett, a specialist in early recorded sound.

Okeh Records was one of the first labels to break the mold. Perry "Mule" Bradford, a Black composer, pushed Okeh to record Mamie Smith and her song "Crazy Blues" in 1920. The record was a hit and entrepreneur Harry Pace took notice.

Pace had arrived in New York alongside his business partner, W.C. Handy, known as the "Father of the Blues" for writing the first commercially successful blues song, "Memphis Blues." The two owned Pace & Handy Music Co., which published sheet music by Black composers, including some of Handy's biggest numbers such as "St. Louis Blues" and "Beale St. Blues."

"Harry Pace saw that there was profit to be made by Black people producing and distributing music for Black people," says Willie Ruff, a musician and professor emeritus of Yale University.

In the spring of 1921, Pace officially launched Black Swan Records, announcing the new label with ads in Black newspapers across the country with the slogan "The Only Records Using Exclusively Negro Voices and Musicians."

All he needed was a star.

An advertisement for Ethel Waters' "Down Home Blues" in the <em>Chicago Defender</em> in 1921.
/ Chicago Defender
Chicago Defender
An advertisement for Ethel Waters' "Down Home Blues" in the Chicago Defender in 1921.

A singer with a voice like "oxygen in the room"

At the time, Ethel Waters was making a name for herself on the cabaret circuit in Harlem. Nicknamed "Sweet Mama Stringbean," Waters was tall and thin, an elegant dancer with a smooth, sophisticated voice.

"When Ethel Waters sang, she was the oxygen in the room," says Emmett Price III, executive editor of the Encyclopedia of African American Music.

Pace invited Waters to his basement office on 138th Street in Harlem to record for his brand new record label. She sang "Down Home Blues" into a large horn with a highly sensitive recording needle at the other end; these were still the days of acoustic recording technology.

When the record came out, it was a sensation. It sold over 100,000 copies in the first six months, which made it a huge hit at a time when few Black musicians were recorded at all.

Radio Diaries: Harry Pace And The Rise And Fall Of Black Swan Records

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

News of the completion of the first list of Black Swan records will be received with great interest and enthusiasm by our people all over the United States ... A great uproar was caused among white phonograph record companies who resent the idea of having a race company enter what they felt was an exclusive field. 

-- Chicago Defender, May 7, 1921

With the success of "Down Home Blues," Pace sent Ethel Waters and the Black Swan Troubadours out on tour. They traveled to 53 cities, including towns in the South — a dangerous venture for a Black band in 1921.

Black arts, culture and business were booming across the country in urban centers like Tulsa, Memphis, and New York, but that success was often met with violence. The same month that Harry Pace launched Black Swan in Harlem, white mobs destroyed the Greenwood district of Tulsa, killing an estimated 300 people in what's now called the Tulsa Race Massacre.

Bill Doggett, who is working on a project on race at the dawn of the recording industry for the Library of Congress, says Black Swan's success "was a statement of defiance to systematic racism and Jim Crow."

"This was not just about making money," says musician Rhiannon Giddens, who seeks to recontextualize Americana as a historically Black artform. "This is also about, two generations out of slavery, that we are taking up our rightful mantle and uplifting the race."

Celebrating the richness and bandwidth of the African American experience

Harry Pace was strongly influenced by his mentor, the activist and sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois. While at Atlanta University, Pace studied under Du Bois and learned the concept of the "Talented Tenth," the idea that if society were to invest in the most gifted individuals, their success would lead and inspire the larger Black community.

Uplifting his community was a pivotal part of Pace's mission. After college, he helped form the Atlanta chapter of the NAACP and served as its first president, and he remained close with Du Bois throughout his life; Du Bois even served on Black Swan's board of directors.

A postcard from Harry Pace to W.E.B. Du Bois dated June 24, 1921. "Please note for the Crisis that we sold during our first 30 days 10,300 Black Swan records and that we plan to market a phonograph this fall and winter," he writes.
/ Courtesy Department of Special Collections and University Archives, W.E.B. Du Bois Library, University of Massachusetts Amherst
Courtesy Department of Special Collections and University Archives, W.E.B. Du Bois Library, University of Massachusetts Amherst
A postcard from Harry Pace to W.E.B. Du Bois dated June 24, 1921. "Please note for the Crisis that we sold during our first 30 days 10,300 Black Swan records and that we plan to market a phonograph this fall and winter," he writes.

For Pace, highlighting Black excellence meant showing that Black musicians were talented at more than just jazz and blues — two genres that had already been pigeonholed as "Black music." Pace signed musicians from all kinds of genres: classical composer William Grant Still, often called the Dean of Afro-American Composers, got his start at Black Swan as a music arranger and opera singer Revella Hughes created one of the first recordings of a Black, classically-trained soprano with Black Swan.

"Part of what Pace was trying to do was to really show the richness and the bandwidth of the African American experience through song," says Price.

Black Swan also recorded Broadway tunes from the new hit show Shuffle Along, along with spirituals and sacred songs. In the summer of 1923, Pace created the first recording of "Lift Every Voice and Sing," composed by brothers John and James Weldon Johnson, and commonly known as the "Black national anthem."

Fighting the muscle behind white-owned labels

Despite success in his personal mission, Pace quickly faced setbacks as he tried to grow the Black Swan label. He bought his own recording and pressing company so he wouldn't have to rely on white-owned pressing facilities, but it only landed Black Swan in massive debt. Meanwhile, wealthier, white recording companies like Columbia and Paramount were beginning to record more blues tracks, increasing the competition.

"When the culture at large realized there was money to be made, [the] game was over," says Giddens. "White recording studios, they have the muscle, they have the backing, they have the money."

There were additional factors that contributed to Black Swan's troubles. "Broadcast radio was becoming increasingly popular," says historian David Suisman, author of Selling Sounds: The Commercial Revolution in American Music. "Radio sent shockwaves through the whole record industry; record sales dropped sharply in the early '20s as a result."

Pace took desperate measures to save his record company. With the purchase of the printing plant, he had access to a cache of recordings by white artists which he could reissue, basically for free. In an attempt to keep Black Swan on its feet, he began releasing these recordings by white artists under pseudonyms, passing them off as Black artists: the white stage singer Aileen Stanley became "Mamie Jones" and the Palm Beach Society Orchestra became "Fred Smith's Society Orchestra."

Nonetheless, the ploy didn't help sales. Black Swan artists were being pulled away by white companies left and right. Fletcher Henderson, William Grant Still, and Alberta Hunter left the label, and eventually, so did the label's original star, Ethel Waters. Black Swan released its last record in 1923 before Pace sold its catalog to Paramount Records, a white-owned company.

Why was Black Swan left out of popular history?

After selling Black Swan, Pace left New York and went on to have a successful career in insurance. He later became an attorney in Chicago before he died on July 19, 1943, at the age of 59. He was survived by his wife, Ethlynde, and two children, Josephine and Harry Jr.

However, there's one aspect of Harry Pace's life post-Black Swan that remains a mystery. The 1930 Chicago census shows Pace and his family identified as "negro," but the 1940 census identifies him as "white." To his descendants, Harry Pace was their white grandfather; they thought he was Italian, although the details were sparse. It was only in 2007, more than 60 years after Pace's death, that his descendants found out his history for the very first time.

Pace's grandson Peter was 62 years old when he found out his grandfather was Black. "Growing up I identified as white, I was never told I was anything else but white," he says. Peter remembers a carefully controlled narrative, "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."

Pace seemed to live a double life. He remained actively involved in the Black movement, was a member of the NAACP and the Urban League, and served as a mentor to a young John H. Johnson, who would later create the Negro Digest and JET Magazine. He became a lawyer and fought against Chicago's racially-discriminatory covenants, which prevented Black people from living in certain neighborhoods. Pace even brought the case Hansberry v. Lee to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1940 and won.

But all the while, in his private life, Pace seems to have distanced himself from the Black community. His family moved to River Forest, a predominantly white neighborhood outside of Chicago. His children went to college, fell in love, and married white spouses.

"He could pass as white and probably did all his life," says Ruff. "Those people don't go around with a sign on their back that says 'I'm Black.' Would you? I wouldn't pass judgement until I walked a mile in his shoes."

Harry Herbert Pace is not often included in the history lessons of the Harlem Renaissance, but Emmett Price III argues that whether or not we remember him, he left a lasting legacy.

"Harry Pace gave us a blueprint that other labels after Black Swan used — whether it's Motown Records, Stax Records, Philadelphia International Records — for a Black-owned, Black-operated music business that focused on Black artistry." That artistry helped launch the careers of William Grant Still, Fletcher Henderson, Alberta Hunter, Ethel Waters.

"These artists that Harry Pace recorded," Price says, "ended up changing the sound of America."

This story was produced by Nellie Gilles and Joe Richman of Radio Diaries and edited by Deborah George and Ben Shapiro. Thanks also to Alissa Escarce, Mycah Hazel and Stephanie Rodriguez. The project is a partnership with Radiolab and OSM Productions and their series "The Vanishing of Harry Pace," produced by Shima Oliaee and Jad Abumrad. You can find more stories like this one on The Radio Diaries Podcast.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nellie Gilles
Mycah Hazel