NAME: Sissieretta Jones
DATE OF BIRTH: January 5, 1869
PLACE OF BIRTH: Portsmouth, Virginia
FAMILY BACKGROUND: Born Matilda Sissieretta Joyner, she was the daughter of an African Methodist Episcopal minister, Jeremiah Malachi Joyner, and Henrietta Beale Joyner, from whom she inherited her soprano voice. She was nicknamed by family and friends as Sissy or Tilly.
EDUCATION: In 1876, when she was seven years old, Sissieretta’s family moved to Providence for better educational and economic opportunities. There, she attended Meeting Street and Thayer Schools. In 1883, at 14 years of age, she married David Richard Jones, a newsdealer and hotel bellman, and began her formal music training at the Providence Academy of Music, studying with Ada Baroness Lacombe. At age 18, she attended the New England Conservatory in Boston, studying with Flora Batson, the leading singer of the Bergen Star Company.
ACCOMPLISHMENTS: Sissieretta began singing for the public at a very early age; at school functions, festivals and at her father’s Pond Street Church. It wasn’t long before she was drawing public acclaim. In 1887, she sang to 5,000 people at Boston’s Music Hall in a benefit for the Parnell Defence Fund. This performance attracted the attention of concert managers Abbey, Schoffel and Grau.
They scheduled Sissieretta at the Wallack Theater in New York where she made her successful debut on June 15, 1888. The manager of famed Italian operatic star Adelina Patti attended this show and recommended that she tour the West Indies with the Tennessee Jubilee Singers of Fisk University. This six-month tour began her professional concert career and, during it, she was presented with the first of many medals she was often photographed wearing.
Over the next decade, Sissieretta performed with different concert companies and solo – three times at the White House for different presidents, in South America, across Europe, and for the Prince of Wales. She was the first Black performer to appear at Carnegie Concert Hall. She performed with Antonín Dvorák and the National Conservatory of Music. She performed at the Wintergarten in Berlin and at Covent Garden, England. And she became widely known after appearing in the three-day “Grand African Jubilee” in Madison Square Garden in New York in April 1892.
She would combine operatic arias with popular songs like “Old Folks at Home” and “The Last Rose of Summer,” although, over time, her audiences pushed her toward a more ethnic repertoire. Critics acclaimed her voice as one in a million, even hailing her as America’s leading prima donna, but one critic at the New York Clipper, a theatrical journal, dubbed her “the Black Patti” – referring to Italian soprano Adelina Patti – and the name stuck. Sissieretta disliked the name; referring to herself as “Madame Jones.”
In her travels, she received many gifts from admirers, including a medal from President Hippolyte of Haiti, a bar of diamonds and emeralds from the citizens of St. Thomas, an emerald shamrock from the Irish people of Providence, and a diamond tiara from the governor-general of a West Indies island. She often wore her 17 medals across her chest during shows. After performing in Europe, she noticed that she encountered much less racial prejudice there, and said in a letter home:
During her early performing years, her husband David was her manager. However, in 1898, she filed for divorce, citing David’s drunkenness and nonsupport. In 1892, she signed a three-year contract with Major J.B. Pond, a manager of other well-known singers and lecturers such as Mark Twain and Rev. Henry Ward Beecher. Her fees began to rise – even receiving $2,000 for a week’s appearance at the Pittsburgh Exposition, the highest ever paid to a Black artist. (In comparison, Adelina Patti was paid $4,000 a night.)
By 1896, Sissieretta was frustrated by and limited in venues due to racism -- including the Metropolitan Opera, where she was considered to be cast in a lead role but its racial barrier destroyed that dream. (This barrier stayed in place until Marian Anderson became the first Black person to sing a lead role there – in 1955.) So she formed a troupe of about 40 jugglers, comedians, dancers and singers who combined vaudeville, minstrel, musical review and grand opera. Known as the Black Patti Troubadours, and managed by Rudolph Voelckel and John J. Nolan, the group enjoyed great success for almost 20 years performing for primarily white audiences in major cities across the U.S. (Later, the group changed its name to the Black Patti Musical Comedy Company.)
In the second half of the show, Sissieretta performed what she called an “operatic kaleidoscope” – an expanded version of her opera excerpts (portions of such operas as Lucia, Il Trovatore, Martha, Faust, and El Capitan), complete with scenery and costumes. By the early 1900s, the shows became more organized, with a definite plot and musical comedy where Sissieretta appeared in the storyline.
Shows included A Trip to Africa (1909-10), In the Jungles (1911-12), Captain Jaspar (1912-13), and Lucky Sam from Alabam’ (1914-15). Many times, they performed in the new Black-owned theaters such as the Howard in Washington, D.C. But Sissieretta became ill and could not participate fully in the 1913-14 season. Her return in the following season was cut short when the company disbanded. By 1915, people were not drawn to such productions anymore. The last performance was, according to one source, at Church’s Auditorium in Memphis, Tennessee, – or, according to another source, at the Gibson Theater in New York.
Sissieretta gave two final performances: at the Grand Theater in Chicago and at the Lafayette Theater in New York City in October 1915. She promised her audiences that she would return but she never did. At the age of 46, she returned home to Providence, devoting her later years to church work, taking in homeless children, and caring for her ailing mother. To make ends meet, she sold three of her four houses and most of her medals and jewels, leaving her penniless when she died of cancer at age 74 in Rhode Island Hospital. In her final years, William Freeman, a real estate agent and president of the local chapter of the NAACP, paid her taxes and water bill, and provided coal and wood. She was buried in Grace Church Cemetery, Providence.
DATE OF DEATH: June 24, 1933
PLACE OF DEATH: Providence, Rhode Island
Bordman, Gerald Martin. American Musical Theatre: A Chronicle. Oxford University Press. 2001.
Commire, Anne, editor. Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia. Waterford, Conn: Yorkin Publications. 2000.
Hine, Darlene Clark, editor. Black Women in America. Brooklyn, NY: Carlson Publishing. 1993.
Story, Rosalyn M. And So I Sing: African-American Divas of Opera
and Concert. Amistad Press. 1993.
Matilda Sissieretta Jones - The Encyclopædia Britannica Guide to Black History
Matilda Sissieretta Joyner Jones - Women in American History by the Encyclopædia Britannica
She sang her way into history - Providence Journal
Chapter One: Sissieretta Jones - Excerpt from And So I Sing by Rosalyn M. Story
Sissieretta Jones - The Black History Pages
The Black Patti (Poster) - American Treasures of the Library of Congress
The flowers absorb the sunshine because it is their nature. I give out melody because God filled my soul with it.
-- Sissieretta Jones
Presented by Lakewood Public Library