About the Book
In 1911, black theater critic Lester Walton wrote in his column for the New York Age, “Mme. Sissieretta Jones is really a remarkable woman – an artist whom biographers cannot overlook in days to come when giving historic references to performers past and present and their accomplishments.” Yet, Sissieretta, also known as the “Black Patti,” has been largely overlooked. A new biography about this important vocalist seeks to bring her the recognition she deserves.
Sissieretta Jones: “The Greatest Singer of Her Race,” 1868-1933 , by author Maureen Donnelly Lee, provides more details about this classically trained soprano’s professional life than ever gathered before. It 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. The book 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, Virginia, in 1868, three years after the end of the Civil War. She and her family moved to Providence, Rhode Island, in 1876. She grew up in Providence and began singing at local churches on the city’s East Side. She received vocal training in Providence and Boston before starting her professional singing career. In the summer of 1888, at the age of 20, Sissieretta left Rhode Island to star in a troupe that performed in the West Indies and South America for 17 months. In 1892, she became famous in the United States after appearing at a Grand Negro Jubilee at New York’s Madison Square Garden.
Over the years Sissieretta’s fame grew until her career took a new twist in 1896 when she became the star of the Black Patti Troubadours, a 40-member troupe of black entertainers who traveled the country performing stage shows that included comedy sketches, dancing, music, and variety acts. Sissieretta sang operatic and concert selections in the third part of the show. The troupe, later called the Black Patti Musical Comedy Company, traveled throughout the United States for 20 years. Sissieretta retired from the stage in 1915 and returned to Providence, where she spent the remainder of her life. She died in 1933.
Unfortunately, Sissieretta left no diaries, journals, or box of letters that might tell more about her personal life and her thoughts and feelings. Author Maureen Lee spent four years methodically searching microfilm of two prominent African American newspapers that covered black entertainment and two New York entertainment weeklies to piece together information about Sissiertta’s professional life. This biography was published May 15, 2012, by the University of South Carolina Press.