Harry Pace adorns the cover of a book detailing the history Black Swan Records

A few of the best musicologists and recording historians know that Black Swan was America’s first Black-owned record company. But they may be less informed about who the founders were, and that one of them was light enough to pass for white, something he reportedly did toward the end of his life. The lesser two of them was Harry Herbert Pace, the other was renowned musician and composer W.C. Handy, among the first to notate blues music.

What we know of Pace’s early years is chronicled on several websites and in Bruce Kellner’s “The Harlem Renaissance: A Historical Dictionary for the Era.” He was born in Covington, Georgia in 1884. From a biography of Pace his grandfather was manumitted from slavery after being brought from Virginia to Georgia. Other than finishing elementary school by the time he was 12, little else is known of his formative years.

He was working as a printer when he enrolled at Atlanta University, a job that would pay his tuition and other expenses. Later, he quit the job and took on odd jobs around the campus. It was during these days on campus that he met W.E.B. Du Bois as a student in one of his classes. He was 19 years old and valedictorian of his graduating class in 1903. After graduation he used his experience in printing to start his own press in Memphis, with Du Bois as his partner. In effect, the association with Du Bois placed Pace among the “Talented Tenth,” and he, unlike Du Bois, was one of the eight who signed a letter that led to Garvey’s downfall on the charges of mail fraud. Two years later they would found the short-lived magazine The Moon Illustrated Weekly.

Pace ended his business connection with Du Bois, though he remained a lifelong loyalist and later as an insurance executive donated money to his mentor’s various enterprises. By 1912, Handy would be his next partner and they even wrote songs together. He wasn’t too busy on the entrepreneurial front and with musical activity to ignore Ethylene Bibb, whom he married in the early 1920s. This was about the same time he and Handy formed the Pace and Handy Music Company, and this brought Pace to New York City. Soon, they were able to lure such notable musicians as William Grant Still and Fletcher Henderson to the fold.

For the most part, the company published and distributed sheet music, with Handy’s notation clearly evident. But the ever aware Pace noticed the growing market of phonograph records and he resigned from the company and began devoting more time to this new interest. In 1921, after forging an alliance with members of the NAACP to establish a branch in Atlanta, Pace was back at his desk in Harlem with Black Swan Records on the agenda. Again Du Bois was involved, suggesting he name the company after singer Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, who was called the “Black Swan.” He quickly embarked on the company, noting that “There are twelve million colored people in [the] U.S., and in that number there is a wonderful amount of musical ability. We propose to spare no expense in the search for and developing of the best singers and musicians among the twelve million.”

Pace lived in Harlem but his company’s offices were in the Gaiety Theater in Times Square. In the basement of his brownstone, he set up a recording studio. Henderson, a musical genius, became his recording manager and Grant Still the arranger. The first recordings featured light classical musical performances, blues, spirituals and instrumental solos. But things changed dramatically when Ethel Waters’ versions of “Down Home Blues” and “Oh, Daddy” were top sellers. Even so, in 1923, Pace declared bankruptcy and a few months later sold Black Swan to Paramount Records.

Two years later Pace was off on a fresh venture with the founding of the Northeastern Life Insurance Company based in Newark, N.J. By the 1930s, the company was the largest African-American owned business in the North. He then moved to Chicago to begin attending the Chicago-Kent College of Law. He received his degree in 1933 and began passing for white after opening his law firm in downtown Chicago in 1942. It would be long after his death on July 19, 1943, in Chicago that his progeny would discover his African ancestry. He is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.

Pace’s legacy is two-fold: he spurred the recording industry for African American ownership and did the same in the insurance industry. Countless number of enterprising women and businessmen such as John Johnson, who founded Ebony and Jet magazines, were inspired and mentored by Pace.

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