Sissieretta Jones (ca. 1868–1933)
by Randye Jones
The African American vocalists who flourished during the nineteenth century found that the opportunities for success in the world of classical music were virtually nonexistent even for those whose vocal abilities should have resulted in professional notoriety. However, there were a few singers who, despite extreme obstacles, found enough success to make it feasible for those who followed to reach otherwise inconceivable levels of achievement. One of those few was soprano Sissieretta Jones.
Born Matilda Sissieretta Joyner, Jones’s date of birth differs in various sources; however, Jones biographer Maureen Lee used 5 January 1868 based on 1870 United States Census records and the 1968 dissertation by Jones family member Willia Estelle Daughtry. Born in Portsmouth, Virginia, Jones was the daughter of an ex-slave and minister who was able to provide her with the opportunities necessary for her to receive a musical education. The family moved to Providence, Rhode Island, when Sissieretta was still young, and they settled within a thriving African American community. As a classically trained singer who studied at the New England Conservatory, the soprano earned notoriety as a performer in New York, by touring in the Americas and Europe, and by performing for political dignitaries, including four American presidents.
Referred to as “Black Patti,” Jones was compared to Italian-French soprano Adelina Patti (1843–1919), the most famous opera singer of her era, but Jones’ race prevented her from being seriously considered for suitable soprano roles in the world’s opera houses. Jones had “a big voice that spanned nearly two and a half octaves, from a low C to a high E. Her upper notes were described as clear and bell-like, and her lower register was said to have the depth of a contralto.”1
White music critics and audiences who were accustomed to African Americans represented on stage by the negative stereotypes of minstrelsy were simply unused to seeing them as serious performers on the classical music stage. Jones was obliged to shape her musical career within the limited professional options available to her. This was a situation similarly faced by other African American singers, including the “Black Swan,” Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield (ca. 1824–1876), who gave a command performance for England’s Queen Victoria in 1854, tenor Thomas Bowers (ca. 1823–1885), called the “Colored Mario,” who toured with Greenfield before developing a career as a solo recitalist, and Marie Selika Williams (ca. 1849–1937), a coloratura soprano who was the first African American artist to perform at the White House and gave a command performance for Queen Victoria in 1883, and sisters Anna Madah Hyers (ca. 1855–1929) and Emma Louise Hyers (ca. 1857–1901), who were singers and pioneers in musical theater. Each of these singers found that:
So much attention has been given to the folk songs of the illiterate and to Negro buffoonery, that few have realized how arduously the lone artists strove to achieve musical recognition. In a letter to a friend, Bowers in his maturity wrote, “What induced me more than anything else to appear in public was to give the lie to ‘Negro serenaders’ (minstrels), and to show to the world that colored men and women could sing classical music as well as the members of the other races by whom they had been so terribly vilified.”2
Limited by the societal restrictions of the time, Jones eventually settled for headlining the Black Patti Troubadours, performing costumed excerpts from operas in what was, otherwise, predominately a minstrel show. Touring was an extremely difficult life for African Americans in the 19th- and early 20th-century:
Segregated hotels turned her away, and not only in the South. The same year the Troubadours were founded, 1896, the United States Supreme Court allowed racial segregation in its Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which held that “separate but equal” facilities were constitutional. That fall, when Jones’s young company tried to tour Hartford, every hotel refused them, according to The New York Times. She eventually got a private rail car to live in while on the road.3
The challenges Jones faced throughout her career were aptly described:
Sissieretta Jones struggled as an artist, fighting daily for dignity and artistic survival in a world that viewed her as, at best, a freakish imitation of a white ideal. Refusing to see her only as the gifted singer she was, the public lauded her with left-handed praise: the “dusky diva,” the “chocolate-hued” songstress, the “Black Patti.” Critics acknowledged her beauty, but never without qualifications: “The Black Patti is of pure Negro blood,” said one reporter, “nevertheless [emphasis added], she is of very pleasing appearance.” The comparisons with Patti were ludicrous; there was no comparing the two. Patti was the idol of millions, demanded at least $4,000 nightly, and retired to her opulent Welsh castle, complete with private theater. Jones rarely earned more than $300 for one appearance and retired, largely forgotten, to a life of poverty.4
Shortly after the Black Patti Troubadours dissolved due to Jones’s extended throat illness and the company’s financial difficulties, Jones retired so that she could care for her ill mother. She settled in Providence in 1915 and, in succeeding years, had to sell her valuables and gifts to support herself. She also taught music to area students.
When Sissieretta Jones died from cancer in Providence on 24 June 1933, she was buried in an unmarked grave paid for by a local businessman who had also provided financial assistance during the two years of her final illness. Years later, Jones’s biographer, Maureen Lee, established a GoFundMe campaign to raise sufficient monies to purchase a tombstone for the deceased singer. The stone’s placement in June 2018 was part of a series of events intended to commemorate Jones’s life on what was believed to be the 150th anniversary year of her birth.
Lee summed up Jones’ life in the singer’s biography:
Although Sissieretta had good fortune in her professional life, her personal life was touched by sadness and loss–the death of her only child at age two; little or no relationship with her father during her adult years; divorce from her gambling, drunken husband; the long illness and death of her beloved mother; and poverty and sickness in her own final years. Despite it all, she maintained a positive attitude and persevered. She had achieved what she set out to do–sing on the stage–and, in the process, had become famous. She acquired her fame by traveling from one city and town to another, day after day, month after month, year after year. Her singing impressed various newspaper writers and critics, who wrote reviews describing her magnificent voice, her graceful manner, and the stunning gowns and jewels she wore…. From the beginning of her career, Sissieretta became a role model for her race and helped lower the racial boundaries that prejudice imposed on her and other African Americans. She taught white Americans that black people could sing classical music and popular standards and sound as elegant and breathtaking as white vocalists, and she showed them that African Americans could achieve fame and prosperity.5
1Rosalyn M. Story. And So I Sing: African-American Divas of Opera and Concert. (New York: Warner Books, 1990), 4.
2Maud Cuney Hare. Negro Musicians and Their Music. (New York: G. K. Hall & Co., 1996), 201.
3Michael Cooper. “Overlooked No More: Sissieretta Jones, a Soprano Who Shattered Racial Barriers;” New York Times, September 2, 2018, D8. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/15/obituaries/sissieretta-jones-overlooked.html, accessed May 17, 2019.
5Lee, Maureen D. “Retirement and Tributes.” In Sissieretta Jones: “The Greatest Singer of Her Race,” 1868-1933, 234-44. Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 2012. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv6wgkvn.18.
A short documentary on Sissieretta Jones produced by Carnegie Hall:
The Spirituals Database is a searchable listing of compact discs, long-playing discs, 78 rpm, and audio cassette recordings by various vocalists of Negro Spirituals set for concert performance. Information is available about song selections spanning a century from Burleigh’s “Deep River” to the present day.
To cite this page:
Afrocentric Voices in Classical Music. Created by Randye Jones. Created/Last modified: May 18, 2019. Accessed:. http://www.afrovoices.com/wp/sissieretta-jones-biography.