Some of the best musicologists and record 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 easy enough to pass as white, which he reportedly did towards the end of his life. The smaller of these was Harry Herbert Pace, the other was renowned musician and composer WC Handy, one of the first to notate blues music.
What we know of Pace’s early years is recorded 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. A biography of Pace reveals that his grandfather was freed from slavery after being brought to Georgia from Virginia. Little is known of his formative years other than graduating from elementary school at the age of 12.
When he enrolled at Atlanta University, he worked as a printer, a job that would pay for his tuition and other expenses. He later quit the job and took odd jobs on campus. During those days on campus, he met WEB Du Bois as a student in one of his courses. He was 19 years old and ranked first in his graduating class in 1903. After graduating, he used his experience in printing to start his own printing business in Memphis with Du Bois as a partner. The association with Du Bois practically placed Pace in the “talented tithes,” and he, unlike Du Bois, was one of the eight who signed a letter that led to Garvey’s ouster for mail fraud. Two years later they founded the short-lived magazine The Moon Illustrated Weekly.
Pace ended his business association with Du Bois, although he remained a lifelong loyalist and later donated money to his mentor’s various companies as an insurance manager. In 1912 Handy was his next partner and they even wrote songs together. He was not too busy on the entrepreneurial front and with musical pursuits to ignore Ethylene Bibb, whom he married in the early 1920s. This was around the same time he and Handy formed the Pace and Handy Music Company, and this brought Pace to New York City. They soon attracted such notable musicians as William Grant Still and Fletcher Henderson.
For the most part, the company published and distributed sheet music, with Handy’s notation clearly visible. But the ever-conscious Pace, noticing the growing vinyl market, left the company and began to devote more time to this new interest. In 1921, after forging an alliance with members of the NAACP to set up an Atlanta branch, Pace was back at his desk in Harlem with Black Swan Records on the agenda. Again, Du Bois was involved and suggested naming the company after singer Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, who was dubbed “Black Swan”. He quickly joined the company, noting, “There are twelve million people of color [the] US, and there’s a wonderful amount of musicianship in this number. We propose that no expense be spared in finding and developing 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. He set up a recording studio in the basement of his sandstone house. Henderson, a musical genius, became his recording manager and Grant Still the arranger. The first recordings contained light classical music performances, blues, spirituals and instrumental solos. But things changed dramatically when Ethel Waters’ versions of “Down Home Blues” and “Oh, Daddy” were big sellers. Despite this, Pace filed for bankruptcy in 1923 and sold Black Swan to Paramount Records a few months later.
Two years later, Pace started a new venture by forming Northeastern Life Insurance Company, based in Newark, NJ. In the 1930s, the company was the largest African American company in the North. He then moved to Chicago to study at the Chicago-Kent College of Law. He received his degree in 1933 and began to exist as a white man after opening his law practice in downtown Chicago in 1942. It would be long after his death on July 19, 1943 in Chicago for his descendants to discover his African ancestry. He is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.
Pace’s legacy is twofold: he spurred the record industry to owning by African Americans and did the same in the insurance industry. Countless enterprising women and business people like John Johnson, who founded Ebony and Jet magazines, have been inspired and mentored by Pace.