Rhode Island’s Sissieretta Jones was destined to be an opera prima donna. “I can never remember a time when I did not sing,” she would recall. But she was born at the wrong time – 1868. The opera companies of her day didn’t have black leading ladies, and while makeup could disguise a person’s race, Jones would not think of it.
“Try to hide my race and deny my own people? Oh, I would never do that. I am proud of belonging to them and would not hide what I am even for an evening,” she told newspaper reporters.
And so, one of the greatest voices of her age, Matilda Sissieretta Joyner Jones would carve her own path to fame, outside the conventional opera world.
By combining popular and classical music, Jones would have a 30-year career on stage as one of the most popular entertainers of the 1890s. And while she did not manage to infiltrate the opera companies of the day, she did become one of the best paid acts of her era on the vaudeville circuit.
Jones was born in Portsmouth, Virginia and came to Rhode Island as a child when her father, a minister, accepted a position in Providence. As a girl, she sang in the choir under her father’s direction, and her talent became obvious.
She received some formal training at Providence Academy of Music and the New England Conservatory, though it was likely not as an official student as the institution was not generally open to black students. She married at 14, and her husband David became her first manager.
Jones made her debut in Boston in 1887, and that was followed by a concert in New York in 1888. One reviewer compared her to the popular European soprano of the day, Adelina Patti. She was given the nickname the Black Patti, and it stuck.
After a tour of the Caribbean, Jones returned to the United States and she performed four times at New York’s Carnegie Hall between 1892 and 1896. Throughout the 1890s, her singing was constantly in demand in Boston and New York. She performed at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and at the White House four times for presidents Benjamin Harrison, Grover Cleveland, William McKinley, and Theodore Roosevelt.
Though she never particularly liked the stage name Black Patti, eventually she embraced it and created the Black Patti Troubadours, a travelling show that featured a number of African American acts. Posters blared that she was the “finest singer of her race.” Her singing was the highlight of the show, and she performed a mix of music that included [s2If !is_user_logged_in()]
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[s2If current_user_can(access_s2member_level0)]operatic arias, as well as her signature song, William Foster’s ‘Old Folks at Home’ (Way Down Upon the Suwanee River).
For 20 years, until 1916, the Black Patti Troubadors toured the country and crowds universally raved about her singing. She was famous for appearing on stage wearing the many medals she had received as prizes for her vocal performances, and this became a signature look for her.
By 1900, she had divorced her husband, who misused her money. The Troubadours appeared in virtually every state in the country and her arrivals in a town or city were always headline news. At one point, the Associated Press incorrectly reported her death, throwing the fans in San Francisco, where she was scheduled to perform, into shock until a correction reached them.
She was well received by both black and white audiences, and performed widely in the south, playing to segregated halls where black patrons sat in one section, whites in another.
In 1916 the music abruptly stopped. She largely gave up performing to return to Providence and care for her ailing mother.
In 1933, Sissieretta Jones died, largely forgotten and impoverished. Because her career did not extend long into the period of recorded music, she disappeared from the public’s mind. Historians, however, have long credited her with being one of few black women who made a name for themselves in the segregated world of classical music.[/s2If]