Sissieretta Jones’ Story
“We come through the furnaces of affliction and persecution and become as gold, tried in the fire.”–Sissieretta Jones
Sissieretta Jones was born Matilda Sissieretta Joyner in 1868 in Portsmouth, Virginia, just after the end of the Civil War. Her father, a pastor, had been born into slavery; her mother was a washerwoman. In 1876, the family moved to Providence, Rhode Island, where her father had been offered a ministerial position. Jones began singing in the church choir at an early age, and her path to stardom began there. Jones later said that, “after singing a solo at a Sunday-school concert, some people said to my mother, ‘the child sang a High C; you should let her learn music.’” How Jones paid for music school is unknown, but it is well documented that Jones went to the Providence Academy of Music where she received formal vocal training. In 1883, at age 15, she married a hotel porter named David Jones, and soon thereafter the couple had a daughter, Mabel, who died as a baby.
In 1886, Jones pursued additional vocal training in Boston, and then began touring music halls throughout the northeast. She was soon hired by a white manager as the lead vocalist of the Tennessee Jubilee Singers, performing arias, gospel, and popular tunes. In 1888 and 1890, the group toured the Caribbean to packed, racially-mixed concert halls. The second tour was managed by an all-Black team, including Jones’ husband. On these tours, heads of state and other dignitaries gifted Jones numerous medals and precious jewels, and wearing them pinned across her chest became a part of Jones’ signature look.
In the United States, Jones became known as the “Black Patti” — a comparison to Italian opera star Adelina Patti. The name was likely given to Jones by one of her managers who thought it would help to promote her career. She did not approve of the epithet but, unfortunately, it stuck throughout her career.
In 1892, Sissieretta Jones performed operatic arrangements at the newly built Madison Square Garden Concert Hall to an audience of thousands. This big break led to other major successes. Jones sang at the White House for President Benjamin Harrison and the following year, she became the first African American woman to headline a concert on the main stage at Carnegie Hall. her fame also led to a European tour, where she performed for emperors, kings, and princes. However, the tide of Jones’s career turned with the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson ruling, which ushered in a new era of segregation and racial violence, and Jones’ popularity among white audiences was considerably diminished.
But talent and name recognition allowed Jones to find a way to reach audiences. Jones was recruited to become the star of the “Black Patti Troubadours.” At a time when minstrel shows performing in blackface stereotyped and demeaned Black culture, in stark contrast, this vaudeville show made up of 50 African American acrobats, comedians, dancers, and trained singers, performed what was often described as “authentic Negro culture.” The Troubadours quickly became popular, and for the next 19 years, Jones and the troupe traveled across the United States. For the next 19 years, Jones and the troupe traveled the country. It was not without its challenges, however. As Jim Crow laws barred the troupe from hotels, they got their own train car, which acted as both transportation and lodging for the group. Segregation also affected how audiences saw the show. White audiences sat in the orchestra while the Black audience was forced to sit upstairs in the balconies of halls, leading to, what the press dubbed at the time, “topheavy” crowds.
In 1915 Jones retired from the stage to care for her aging mother in Providence. Despite being called “one of the greatest singers of all time,” and being the highest-paid African American performer of her generation, Jones had to sell her medals and properties to survive until her death in 1933.
FEATURED IN THE FILM
Lyric coloratura soprano Harolyn Blackwell is recognized for a career that has spanned opera, concert and recital stages around the world. Following college, the Washington, D.C., native began her career on Broadway in Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story.” Shortly afterward, she was selected as a finalist for the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, and her career path changed from musical theatre to opera. Since then, she has performed with many of the major national and international opera companies, and at festivals around the world, including Lyric Opera of Chicago, Glyndebourne Festival, Teatro Colon de Buenos Aires, Seattle Opera, Opera de Nice, Miami Opera, Canadian Opera Company, Aix-en-Provence Festival, Opera Orchestra of New York and New York’s Mostly Mozart Festival. She has appeared in several productions at the Metropolitan Opera, including “Un Ballo in Maschera,” “Le Nozze di Figaro,” “Manon,” “Die Fledermaus,” “Werther” and “La Fille du Régiment”. Ms. Blackwell starred as Cunegonde in the Broadway revival of “Candide”. An accomplished recitalist, she has performed in several acclaimed concert series, including London’s Wigmore Hall, Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall, The Morgan Library, The Library of Congress, The San Francisco Performances Series at the Herbst Hall, The Kennedy Center’s Fortas Chamber Series, The Vocal Arts Society of Washington and The Ambassador Foundation Performing Arts Series in Los Angeles. She has also appeared in a number of nationally televised concerts such as The Grammy Awards, The Kennedy Center Honors, The Memorial Day and Fourth of July Concerts on PBS, Christmas in Washington and The PBS Live From The White House to name a few. Ms. Blackwell is the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including the opportunity to study in Italy with Renata Tebaldi and Carlo Bergonzi. She is a member of the voice faculty at Manhattan School of Music, NYU Steinhardt, and Barnard/Columbia University. Previously, she was a member of the voice faculty at The Peabody Conservatory of Music at The Johns Hopkins University.
Maureen D. Lee is a retired public relations professional, and former newspaper journalist who lives in Columbia, South Carolina. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Rhode Island College. In 2003 shortly before her retirement from Clemson University, Lee became interested in Sissieretta Jones, who lived many years in Lee’s home state of Rhode Island. She spent the next nine years researching and writing about Matilda Sissieretta Joyner Jones. Her work culminated in a biography, Sissieretta Jones, “The Greatest Singer of Her Race,” 1868-1933, published in 2012 by the University of South Carolina Press. She remains committed to sharing Sissieretta’s accomplishments with others. In 2018 (the 150th anniversary of Sissieretta’s birth) Lee spearheaded a fundraising campaign, in partnership with a Providence, Rhode Island, non-profit, Stages of Freedom, to secure a headstone to mark both Sissieretta Jones’ and her mother’s unmarked graves.
J’Nai Bridges, known for her “plush-voiced mezzo-soprano” (The New York Times), has been heralded as “a rising star” (Los Angeles Times). She has graced the world’s top stages in repertoire ranging from traditional favorites and world premieres, to spirituals and standards. Recent opera performances include The Metropolitan Opera in Philip Glass’ Akhnaten; San Francisco Opera in the title role of Carmen; LA Opera in Philip Glass’ Satyagraha; and the world premiere of John Adams’ Girls of the Golden West at San Francisco Opera and Dutch National Opera. A highlight of her solo career was Bridges’ 2018 sold-out Carnegie Hall solo recital debut. A native of Tacoma, Washington, she earned her Master of Music degree from the Curtis Institute of Music, and her Bachelor of Music degree in vocal performance from the Manhattan School of Music. In 2018, Bridges received the prestigious Sphinx Medal of Excellence Award. Bridges says she is walking in the footsteps of other pioneering African American women in the operatic tradition, such as Jessye Norman, Marion Anderson, and Sissieretta Jones.
SPECIAL THANKS TO:
Woke Up Famous, LLC
Unladylike2020 is appreciative of the support we have received from Adina Williams and Harolyn Blackwell in the making of our documentary short profiling the life of Sissieretta Jones. Their project–Sissieretta Jones: Call Her By Her Name! a two-hour immersive, multimedia concert experience, with auxiliary masterclasses, lectures, a course of study, and an online historical timeline designed to shed light on the oft-forgotten life and artistry of Sissieretta Jones, who, against all odds, rose to prominence through talent, perseverance, and boundless determination–is scheduled to premiere and tour in 2021-2022.
Acclaimed opera singer Jessye Norman (1945-2019) was the Founding Artistic Director of Woke Up Famous. Norman can be heard here performing Jones’ signature piece, Ave Maria.
Willia Estelle Daughtry, Ph. D.
Unladylike2020 is grateful to Dr. Daughtry for sharing her family memories of Jones’ life as a living descendant and the first person to conduct scholarship on Jones. Daughtry’s research is considered foundational to all biographies and research of Jones’ life and musical legacy.