Today, January 5, 2017, marks the 149th anniversary of the birth of the outstanding vocalist Matilda Sissieretta Joyner Jones (also called the “Black Patti,” a reference to the white opera star, Adelina Patti). This African American musical pioneer, who sang opera, concert ballads and European art songs in the late 1800s and early 1900s, performed before hundreds of thousands in Europe, the West Indies, Canada, and throughout the United States during her 28-year career. Sissieretta was one of the first African American female vocalists to sing at Carnegie Hall and she performed at Madison Square Garden, London’s Covent Garden, and the White House. Unfortunately no recording of her voice has been discovered.
Also missing is Sissieretta’s birth certificate, but other documents and research point to the likelihood she was born January 5, 1868, in Portsmouth, Virginia, three years after the end of the Civil War. Her parents were Jeremiah “Jerry” Malachi Joyner, a carpenter and pastor of the African Methodist Church of Portsmouth, and Henrietta (Beale Everett) Joyner, a washerwoman who was an exceptional soprano in the Ebenezer Baptist Church choir.
In late 1876, Matilda Sissieretta (who stopped using her first name in her early 20s and instead went by her middle name, Sissieretta) and her parents moved to Providence, Rhode Island. She began singing in church programs around Providence and people began to notice her innate musical talent. She received some vocal training and appeared at musical performances with other African American vocalists and musicians in the city. At the age of fifteen she married David Richard Jones, a hotel bellman, and they had a child, Mabel Adelina Jones. The child died at the age of two. After Sissieretta recovered from her grief, she focused on her music — training in Boston and performing in Rhode Island and nearby states.
Her first big break came in the summer of 1888, when the 20-year-old singer joined an all-black musical troupe, the Tennessee Jubilee Singers, and spent six months performing in the West Indies and Central America, in places such as Jamaica, Panama, British Guiana, Barbados, Georgetown, Trinidad, Antigua, Surinam, and St. Kitts. After a successful second musical tour (1890-91) in many of those same countries, Sissieretta seized another major opportunity in 1892, signing a contract with a prominent white manager and promoter, Maj. James B. Pond, who represented many famous musicians and authors. During the two years she was under Pond’s management, Sissieretta sang for black and white audiences throughout the United States and saw her fame spread. In 1895, under new management, she toured Europe for nine months, singing in Paris, London, Berlin, Milan and Monte Carlo. She remained on the concert stage until the summer of 1896, when interest waned for concerts by black female vocalists singing opera and classical ballads.
For the second half of her career, mid-1896-1914, she became the star of an all-black musical comedy company called the Black Patti Troubadours and later the Black Patti Musical Comedy Company. For many years she sang during the third act, called the “Operatic Kaleidoscope.” This troupe, owned and managed by two white men, provided her the opportunity to continue singing operatic arias and serious music when there were fewer concert opportunities available to her. The company entertained in hundreds of American and Canadian opera houses and theaters and performed in all but two of the lower 48 states.
Throughout her 28-year career, Sissieretta lived in Providence when she was not on the road entertaining. She retired there in 1915 and lived quietly and frugally in her eight-room home in the College Hill area until her death in 1933. She supported herself during her retirement years by selling three pieces of property she owned, along with many of her jewels and valuables. She was ill and quite poor during the last two years of her life. A friend and neighbor, William P. Freeman, helped to keep her afloat financially and ensured she was not buried in a pauper’s grave. She was buried next to her mother in Grace Church Cemetery in Providence. Both their graves are unmarked.
Sissieretta, often billed as “the greatest singer of her race,” 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 attended by both black and white patrons. Her beautiful voice, singing operatic areas rather than minstrel songs, gave white audiences a new appreciation for the talent and ability of African American vocalists.
Sissieretta helped pave the way for other African American opera divas who would follow such as Kathleen Battle, Jessye Norman, Leontyne Price and Marion Anderson. Sissieretta deserves to be remembered as one of the first African American entertainment superstars!
How wonderful it would be if those who admire Sissiseretta’s achievements could come together to develop a way to honor the 150th anniversary of her birth next year, January 5, 2018. Surely there are enough talented and creative people to seize the opportunity to plan a fitting birthday celebration to honor this musical pioneer! You can post your ideas and suggestions and volunteer to help on the Sissieretta Jones Facebook page, www.facebook.com/Sissieretta.
Happy Birthday, Sissieretta! May the memory of your life and achievements live forever!!!
Maureen D. Lee, January 5, 2017
author of Sissieretta Jones: “The Greatest Singer of Her Race,” 1868-1933.