Matilda Sissieretta (Joyner) Jones, an internationally acclaimed black opera singer, was born in Portsmouth, Virginia on January 5, 1868, the daughter of Jeremeah Joyner, a former slave and a minister, and Henrietta Beale Joyner, a homemaker, washerwoman, and singer in her church choir. The couple had three children, but only Sissieretta survived childhood.
At the age of seven, Sissy, as she was called, moved with her family to a house at 20 Congdon Street in Providence. Soon she began singing at her father’s new ministry, presumably the Congdon Street Baptist Church. Sissy’s parents separated two years after the family moved to Providence, so she was raised by her mother, who took in washing and ironing to support them both. Young Sissy attended Meeting Street Primary School and Thayer Street Grammar School, and before her teens she was singing at a few of Providence’s black churches, most often at the Pond Street Baptist Church.
Sissy’s talent was so remarkable, and her mother so dedicated that in 1883 she was able to attend the Providence Academy of Music. According to some sources, her formal training continued in the late 1880s at Rhode Island-born Eben Tourjée’s New England Conservatory of Music and/or at the Boston Conservatory. After a solo opening act in Providence on October 29, 1885, as a prelude to a performance by a traveling theater troupe, Sissieretta sang at Boston’s Music Hall in 1887 and made her New York debut on April 5, 1888, at Steinway Hall.
By the time of these initial public appearances, Sissy Joyner had become Sissieretta Jones because of her September 4, 1883, marriage, at age fifteen, to David Richard Jones, a twenty-one-year-old bellman at Providence’s Narragansett Hotel.
During a performance later in 1888 at New York’s Wallack’s Theater, Jones attracted the attention of the manager of Adelina Patti, the renowned Italian opera diva. He recommended that Jones, who soon became known as The Black Patti, go on a tour of the West Indies with the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Two such excursions, in 1888 and 1892, were highly successful and gained Jones national attention.
In February 1892, the pioneering Jones performed at the White House for President Benjamin Harrison. This invitation was followed by requests from the next three chief executives–Grover Cleveland, William McKinley, and Theodore Roosevelt. The fourth appearance was a charm, because it was the first time, she was allowed to enter the White House via the front door rather than the rear entrance. In 1895, she gave a performance for the British royal family attended by the Prince of Wales, the future King George V.
In April 1892, Jones performed in the Grand Negro Jubilee at New York’s Madison Square Garden before a crowd of 75,000. She sang Stephen Collins Foster’s Swanee River, her signature song, and selections from Verdi’s opera La Traviata. In June 1892, she became the first African American to sing at Carnegie Hall. This triumphant exposure led to invitations to perform at the Pittsburgh Exposition in 1892 and the huge Chicago World Columbian Exposition in 1893, a venue where Providence’s American Band also played.
During the 1890s, Jones met with international success and acclaim. She toured South America, Australia, India, southern Africa, and Europe. During her visit to Europe she sang in London, Paris, Berlin, Cologne, Munich, Milan, and St. Petersburg.
From 1896 until her retirement in 1915, Jones toured continually with a troupe called (to her distaste), the Black Patti Troubadours, a group whose performances included blackface minstrel songs, acrobats, and comedians. In this variety show, where she was the lead attraction, Jones confined herself to dignified operatic and traditional songs. She presented a most imposing figure wearing beautifully crafted costumes and gowns, jewelry, and an impressive array of the medals that she had garnered from admiring heads of state.
Jones, regardless of race, was one of the greatest American vocalists of her (or any) era. The Washington Post described her voice as “clear and bell-like. . .. Her low notes are rich and sensuous with a tropical quality. The compass and quality of her registers surpass the usual limitations and seem to combine the height and depth of both soprano and contralto.” Not surprisingly, Sissieretta was the highest paid black entertainer of her time, a fact that made poverty during her declining years more tragic.
Despite the glamour of her stage career, Sissieretta’s personal life was not without its sadness and disappointments. Her only child, a daughter, died in infancy, and her husband’s excessive drinking led to their divorce in 1899. Her fame and travels were, perhaps, a role reversal too much for him to bear.
Sissieretta performed in Canada and forty-six of the forty-eight contiguous states, but the racial discrimination she encountered in her homeland contrasted with the warmth and respect with which she was greeted abroad. In 1896, when her troubadours were formed, the U.S. Supreme Court legalized racial segregation in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson.
Because she suffered discrimination herself, Sissieretta had empathy for others who experienced similar injustices, such as nativism. During her career she often volunteered her talents to local Irish-Catholic groups to help them raise funds in support of the movement for Ireland’s independence from England.
Her mother’s great devotion and support for Sissieretta during her formative years was returned to Henrietta when her daughter interrupted tours to provide for her care. In fact, Sissieretta’s retirement and return to Providence in 1915 was prompted, at least in part, by her mother’s declining health. From that time onward to her death from cancer on June 24, 1933, at the age of sixty-five, Jones devoted her life to her church and family, which also consisted of
two adopted children and some homeless children to whom she gave shelter in her home at
7 Wheaton Street on College Hill.
Patrick T. Conley