Photograph courtesy of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University

Photograph courtesy of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University

To date, no one has found Matilda Sissieretta Joyner Jones’ birth certificate to prove her date of birth, but many sources, including this author, believe she was born in Portsmouth, Virginia on January 5, 1868, to parents Jeremiah and Henrietta Joyner. The  other birth dates named are January 5, 1869, January 12, 1869, February 26, 1869 and December 25, 1864. So how to decide which date?

Without a birth certificate, we have to look at other documents — census records, death certificate and newspaper articles — to try and determine her birth date. Unfortunately, these documents don’t definitively solve the mystery.

Sissieretta’s death certificate (she died in Rhode Island on June 24, 1933) listed her date of birth as January 12, 1864, the same dates several newspaper articles reported. However someone scratched through that date on Sissieretta’s death certificate and wrote in December 25, 1864 and also struck though her age, listed as 64 years, 5 months and 12 days, and replaced it with 68 years, 5 months and 30 days.

Information from the 1870 federal census would lead one to believe she was born in 1868, which also was the same birth date estimated in the 1880 federal census. Sissieretta herself provided conflicting information about her birthday. In the 1905 Rhode Island census she reported she was born on January 5, 1871.  She gave conflicting dates in interviews she did in the press. She told the Indianapolis Freeman, in its Aug. 29, 1891 edition, that she was born on January 5, 1868. She changed her birth year to 1869  in an 1896 interview with the New York Dramatic Mirror (Jan. 11, 1896). Looks like Sissieretta may have wanted to keep her true birth date a secret.

The three people who have done extensive research on Sissieretta’s life have all settled on January 5, 1868 as her birthday. These researchers include Dr. Willia Daughtry, Professor John Graziano, and this author. Daughtry’s 1968 doctoral dissertation gave January 5, 1869 as Sissieretta’s birth date, but later Daughtry revised it to January 5, 1868 in her book Vision and Reality. Graziano, in his 2000 Journal of the American Musicological Society article, “The Early Life and Career of the ‘Black Patti’”, said she was born on January 5, 1868. This author also believes Sissieretta was born on January 5, 1868. Perhaps someone will find a document one day that provides the definitive proof of her birthday.

February 26, 2015
Maureen D. Lee
Author of Sissieretta Jones, “The Greatest Singer of Her Race,” 1868-1933 (University of South Carolina Press, 2012)