“We come through the furnaces of affliction and persecution and become as gold, tried in the fire.”

– Sissieretta Jones

Sissieretta Jones’ Story

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. She 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 she attended 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 pinning them across her chest became a part of her signature look when performing.

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 pieces 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 and access to white concert halls were considerably diminished. 

But talent and name recognition allowed Jones to find a way to reach audiences. At a time when minstrel shows performed in blackface stereotyped and demeaned Black culture, Jones was recruited to become the star of the “Black Patti Troubadours.” This vaudeville show made up of 50 African American acrobats, comedians, dancers, and trained singers, including Jones’ operatic repertoire, quickly became popular 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, RI. 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. She died in poverty on June 24, 1933 and was buried in an unmarked grave in Providence. Benefactors and fans raised money to place a headstone on her grave in 2018.

Featured in the Film

Harolyn Blackwell

Award-winning lyric coloratura soprano Harolyn Blackwell is recognized for a career that has spanned opera, concert, and recital stages around the world. She began her career in musical theater, appearing on Broadway in Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story,” and was then selected as a finalist for the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. 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.” One of the highlights of her career has been working with Jessye Norman and Adina Williams on their upcoming project: Sissieretta Jones: Call Her By Her Name!.

Maureen D. Lee

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, Rhode Island. She spent the next nine years researching and writing the biography, Sissieretta Jones, “The Greatest Singer of Her Race,” 1868-1933 (University of South Carolina Press, 2012). 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 

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.

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Sources

Books & Online Resources

Daughtry, Willia Estelle. Vision and Reality: The Story of “Black Patti” Matilda Sissieretta Joyner Jones. Dorrance Pub Co, 2002.

Daughtry, Willia Estelle. Sissieretta Jones: A Study Of The Negro’s Contribution To Nineteenth-Century American Concert And Theatrical Life. Syracuse University, 1968. https://surface.syr.edu/crs_etd/32/

Lee, Maureen. Sissieretta Jones: “The Greatest Singer of Her Race.”University of South Carolina Press, 2012. https://www.google.com/books/edition/Sissieretta_Jones/1y8UCAAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=Sissieretta+Jones:+The+Greatest+Singer+of+Her+Race&printsec=frontcover

Graziano, John. “The Early Life and Career of the “Black Patti”: The Odyssey of an African American Singer in the Late Nineteenth Century.” Journal of the American Musicological Society, 2000. https://online.ucpress.edu/jams/article/53/3/543/49474/The-Early-Life-and-Career-of-the-Black-Patti-The

Gardner, Eric. “Jones, Sissieretta (05 January 1868–24 June 1933).” American National Biography. https://doi.org/10.1093/anb/9780198606697.article.1803740  

Cooper,  Michael. “Overlooked no more: Sissieretta Jones.” New York Times, Aug. 15, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/15/obituaries/sissieretta-jones-overlooked.html

History’s Unsung Opera Star” National Public Radio, June 11, 2007. https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=10948095?storyId=10948095

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