Eighty-three years ago today (June 24, 2016) the great soprano Sissieretta Joyner Jones died of cancer at Providence’s Rhode Island Hospital. Those who cared for the 65-year-old singer during her final days in the hospital likely did not know about her famous and glorious past when she was billed as the “greatest singer of her race,” and called Madame Sissieretta Jones or “Black Patti,” a sobriquet created by the press to compare her to the world-famous European prima donna Adeline Patti (1843-1919).
The doctors and nurses probably had never seen Sissieretta in her younger days when she dressed in elegant gowns and wore dazzling jewelry as she performed in places like the White House, Carnegie Hall, Madison Square Garden, and London’s Covent Garden. Instead they saw an aging, heavy-set African American woman with very little money and no family to visit and offer comfort during her final days.
Sissieretta, born in Portsmouth, VA on January 5, 1868, had a successful 19-year career, performing for black and white audiences in all but forty-six of the forty-eight contiguous U.S. states, the West Indies, Central America, South America, Cuba, England, France and Germany. She first performed on the concert stage (1888-1896) and then as star of the Black Patti Troubadours and later the Black Patti Musical Comedy Company (1896-1914). Sissieretta, retired to her home in Providence, Rhode Island in 1914 and lived there until her death nineteen years later.
She died quite poor, having had to sell several pieces of property, her jewelry, medals, silver and other valuables over the years to make ends meet. She also had to rely on her friend, benefactor, and neighbor William P. H Freeman, a Providence realtor and former president of the local NAACP chapter, to help pay her property and water taxes, wood and coal bills and other incidentals.
Following Sissieretta’s death, Freeman became the court-ordered custodian of her tiny estate. He ensured she was buried at Grace Church Cemetery in Providence, next to her mother Henrietta Joyner Crenshaw rather than in a pauper’s grave. To this day, there are no headstones on either Sissieretta’s or her mother’s graves.
by Maureen D. Lee
Author, Sissieretta Jones: “The Greatest Singer of Her Race,” 1868-1933