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Harry Pace

Harry Pace
January 6, 1884 – July 19, 1943
Notable: Entrepreneur
Nationality: American


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Few details are known about the early life of Harry Herbert Pace. But Pace’s grandfather had been freed from slavery after he was transported from Virginia to Georgia. Pace was later born in Covington, GA to Nancy Ferris and Charles Pace. Unfortunately, Pace’s father, a blacksmith, died when he was an infant leaving him to be raised by his mother.

At the age of 12, Pace completed elementary school and went on to study at Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta University). He supported himself and his studies by working in printing and various odd jobs. Seven years later Pace graduated as the valedictorian of his class. W.E.B DuBois was a professor at Atlanta University and became a mentor to Pace. The two launched a printing press business and later a magazine. While they eventually severed their business ties, Pace would continue to make donations to DuBois’ projects.

Pace went on to work in banking and insurance, eventually moving up in rank and becoming an executive. In 1912, Pace moved to Memphis where he continued to work as a professional. Shortly after arriving in town, Pace met W.C. Handy, “the Father of the Blues” and the two became friends. He also met and later married Ethlynde Bibb.

Handy and Pace began a songwriting partnership and at times collaborated with the composers Fletcher Henderson and William Grant Still. They established the Pace and Handy Music Company which primarily focused on publishing sheet music. The company successfully generated revenue with hit songs by Handy and other Black musicians.

In 1921, the Pace and Handy Music Company relocated to New York City. The 1920s marked the beginning of several progressive Black movements. The artistically expressive Harlem Renaissance, the rise of Marcus Garvey, calls for Black economic independence, and a desire for Black self-determination. Pace realized that White record labels were buying sheet music created by Black artists but recording the songs with White artists. On the occasions where Black artists were selected to record a song, it was often with constraints on how they sang or performed.

Those observations coupled with Pace disagreeing with some of Handy’s business practices led to him leaving the company. The business relationship ended without malice as Pace chose to start a new company on his own. With the assistance of outside investments, Pace established the Pace Phonograph Corporation to produce records and Black Swan Records to distribute records.

Pace initially operated the business out of his home in Harlem’s Strivers Row where he converted the basement into a recording studio. White record companies attempted to keep Pace out of the industry by cutting off his access to record pressing. Yet, Pace persevered and the company saw success in the form of thousands of shipped records and $100,000 in revenue in its first year. Thus Pace became the first Black record industry mogul, a precursor to Berry Gordy.

Focusing on Black consumers, Black Swan recorded and released records by Ethel Waters, Mamie Smith, Alberta Hunter, Trixie Smith, and others. The company helped to popularize jazz and the blues through its records and live tour performances. With its success, Pace expanded the company’s promotional and sales force across America. He bought a building for the companies’ offices, a recording studio, and a record pressing plant.

Unfortunately, Pace’s expansion of his record business occurred right when record sales began to slow as radio became more popular. Once again Pace found himself an industry outsider looking for a way in. Lacking connections within the radio industry, he was unable to capitalize on radio promotion for driving awareness which led to a drop in record sales.

Within two years of Black Swan’s founding, the company was forced to file for bankruptcy and its song catalog was sold. Yet, the company was still significant despite its short existence. The label signed and recorded some of the first songs by Black musicians at a time when White labels ignored Black musicians. The success of these records and tours proved that there was a market for Black musicians and helped them gain entry into the recording industry. Some artists such as Ethel Waters went on to have legendary careers.

The collapse of Black Swan did not extinguish Pace’s entrepreneurial drive. He relocated to Chicago and went on to establish the Northeastern Life Insurance Company which at one point was the largest Black-owned company in the North. As if that wasn’t enough, Pace also completed a law degree and established a law firm through which he practiced for several years.

Harry Pace died on July 19, 1943, at 59 years old. There’s an interesting and troubling tidbit about Pace’s life in Chicago. Pace remained actively involved with various initiatives and organizations focused on the uplift of Black people. But in their personal lives, Pace and his family lived as White people. This detail remained a secret until 2007 which led to some of Pace’s descendants living well into middle age with the belief that they were White.


  1. Boyd, Herb. 2022a. “Harry Pace, Record Company and Insurance Mogul.” New York Amsterdam News. December 28, 2022.
  2. Boyd, Herb. 2022b. “Harry Pace, Record Company and Insurance Mogul.” New York Amsterdam News. December 28, 2022.
  3. Gilles, Nellie, and Mycah Hazel. 2021. “Radio Diaries: Harry Pace and the Rise and Fall of Black Swan Records.” NPR. NPR. July 1, 2021.
  4. Lewis, Femi. 2017. “Harry Pace and Black Swan Records.” ThoughtCo. ThoughtCo. March 6, 2017.
  5. Manos, Nick. 2020. “Harry Pace (1884-1943).” Blackpast.Org. April 24, 2020.
  6. Staff, AllHipHop. 2022. “Harry Pace: The Black Music Mogul before Berry Gordy, Diddy, and Jay-Z.” AllHipHop. February 2, 2022.
  7. Weusi, Jitu K. 2020. “The Rise and Fall of Black Swan Records.” The Syncopated Times. December 16, 2020.

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