New Biography Tells the Story of Famed African American Soprano Sissieretta Jones
Sissieretta Jones, “The Greatest Singer of Her Race,” 1868-1933 (University of South Carolina Press), recounts the life of Matilda Sissieretta Joyner Jones, a classically trained soprano who was also called the “Black Patti,” a nickname that likened her to the famous white, European opera star Adelina Patti. Sissieretta sang before four United States presidents and in Europe for several prominent leaders. She performed in famous venues such as Carnegie Hall, the White House, London’s Covent Garden, and Madison Square Garden, as well as in hundreds of theaters and opera houses throughout the United States and Canada. Yet, this remarkable singer’s accomplishments have been largely overlooked. This biography seeks to bring her the recognition she deserves.
The book explores the obstacles and limitations she faced because of her race as well as the opportunities she seized upon to become a famous and successful prima donna. It also shows the development of black entertainment during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and the difficult conditions Sissieretta and her fellow entertainers had to cope with during the country’s “Jim Crow” years.
Sissieretta was born in Portsmouth, Va. in 1868, three years after the end of the Civil War. Her parents, Jeremiah and Henrietta Joyner were former slaves. In 1876, Sissieretta and her parents moved to Rhode Island and settled on Providence’s east side. At the age of 15, Sissieretta married David Richard Jones in 1883. She got her early vocal training in Providence and later in Boston and New York. In 1888 Sissieretta was hired as the lead soprano of a small, all-black troupe to tour throughout the West Indies and some South American cities. She completed two successful tours in this part of the world by 1891.
In early 1892, President Benjamin Harrison invited Sissieretta to sing at a White House luncheon in the Blue Room. But it wasn’t until she sang in a Grand Negro Jubilee at Madison Square Garden in New York City two months later that the young soprano began to earn recognition in the United States. Langston Hughes and Milton Meltzer, in their 1967 book about black entertainment, called her 1892 concert performance one of the 36-milestones in the history of “the Negro’s participation in American entertainment.” Shortly after this concert she signed a 3-year contract with a well-known white manager who helped her become famous in America. She was one of the first African American women to sing at Carnegie Hall.
Sissieretta performed on the concert stage until 1896, including a 10-month tour of Europe in 1895. When she returned from Europe she found limited opportunities for African American concert singers. Her career took a new direction. In 1896, Sissieretta became the star of a 40-member, all-black musical comedy troupe called the Black Patti Troubadours. For the next 19 years Sissieretta and her company, led by two white managers, toured extensively throughout the United States and Canada. Sissieretta had found a way to continue her music career using this new format to sing opera and concert ballads. During these years, her company provided a chance for many African American entertainers to get their start in show business.
Often billed as the “greatest singer of her race,” Sissieretta was the pride of African Americans during her day. She was highly successful, well-paid, and greatly admired for her work. Her concert performances were well attended by both black and white audiences. Her beautiful voice, singing operatic arias rather than minstrel songs, gave white audiences a new appreciation for the talent and potential of African American vocalists. She helped to pave the way for other African American opera singers who would follow her. She deserves to be remembered as one of the first African American entertainment superstars.
Sissieretta retired from the stage in 1915 and returned to her home in Providence, where she lived for the rest of her life. Over the years she sold her property, silver, and jewels to keep afloat, but died in poverty in 1933.
Author Maureen Lee spent four years methodically searching old newspapers, court documents, and public records for information to tell the story of Sissieretta’s professional life. Unfortunately, Sissieretta left no diaries, journals, or cache of letters to provide details of her private life, nor did she make any recordings. What is known about her magnificent and powerful voice comes from descriptions of those who heard her perform. The book provides a chronological presentation of Sissieretta’s life and career.
About the Author
Maureen Lee is a retired public relations professional and former newspaper journalist, teacher, and magazine editor. She spent eight years as a research associate for child and family research centers at Clemson University and the University of South Carolina. She grew up in Rhode Island, the state that Sissieretta Jones called home for fifty-seven years. She lives in Columbia, South Carolina, where she and her husband own and operate Lee’s Book Attic, a used and antiquarian book business.
[Sissieretta Jones, “The Greatest Singer of Her Race,” 1868-1933, (ISBN: 978-1-61117-072-6) was published May 2012, by the University of South Carolina Press.]
Lee is available for interviews and appearances to talk about her upcoming book. She can be reached via email, mlee@SissierettaJones.com.