The pastor, who was also a carpenter, and his wife, a laundress who was also a singer, called her Sissy—Matilda Sissieretta Joyner, born January 5, 1868, Portsmouth, VA. She came three years after the close of the Civil War and seven months before the Fourteenth Amendment. She came to Jeremiah and his wife Henrietta, both former slaves who lived in a double house on Bart Street. In 1876, the family moved north to Providence, settling across from the Congdon Street Baptist Church. At school, the children called her Tilly.
In the dim orange churchlight, her voice sounded sweet and her eyes shone like sunlit honey.
In the gloaming, oh my darling
When the lights are soft and low
And the quiet shadows, falling,
Softly come and softly go
Within two years of moving to Providence, Jeremiah left his wife and daughter. In 1883, Sissieretta turned fifteen and began training formally at Providence Music Academy. On September 4 of the same year, she married David Richard Jones, a 21-year-old biracial bellman from Baltimore. When their daughter was born seven months later, 16-year-old Sissieretta called her Mabel Adelina, for the celebrated coloratura Adelina Patti. Her husband David became her manager. The couple lived with Henrietta; the two women likely sang the baby to sleep.
By age 18, Sissieretta had performed alongside established black vocalists like Flora Batson and Marie Selika. In February of 1886, a month after Sissieretta was invited to perform at New York City’s Steinway Hall, Mabel Adelina died of croup, an inflammation of the larynx and trachea. For a while, none of them could breathe.
Then, on April 5, 1988, Sissieretta finally sang in New York. The playbill called her “the rising soprano of Providence.” The newspapers called her Mme. Jones.
When the trees are sobbing faintly
With a gentle unknown woe
Will you think of me and love me,
As you did once, long ago
Her audience was white and it was black. Sometimes there were more of one or the other, sometimes not. They all leaned forward to see her better and they all hung off the balconies to listen. Sissieretta liked to sing in starched satin and jewels and golden rings. Her cheeks were dark pink and her teeth were white.
The papers called her the “Black Patti,” for the celebrated coloratura Adelina Patti.
“There are newspaper reports of her performing at enormous state fairs, and when she finished singing the audience went silent,” her biographer Maureen Lee tells me. “You could hear a pin drop. And then they would just erupt in applause.”
Sissieretta said: “It rather annoys me to be called the ‘Black Pati. I am afraid people will think I consider myself the equal of Patti herself,” she told a reporter for the Detroit Evening News. “I assure you I do not think so, but I have a voice and I am striving to win the favor of the public by honest merit and hard work.”
Her voice reached the ears of Abbey, Schoeffel, and Grau, a management firm who had handled Adelina Patti’s South American tours and represented the whole Metropolitan Opera Company. Two tours through the West Indies and South America in 1888 and 1890 made Sissieretta an international star. She came back with seven medals, one large diamond, four pearls, one ruby, one emerald, five hundred dollars in gold from the Haitian President, and a diamond-studded tiara. She was 22.
The Louisville Post said: “What people saw was a negress of light color, attired in a very becoming gown, en train, which revealed a superb figure, surmounted by a head and face bespeaking plainly intelligence and refinement. She carried herself with dignity, save once when she [curtsied], and with much grace.”
After a show in Cincinnati, a critic wrote about the sweetness of her voice, its “melancholy warmth.” People lined up outside the stage door. She sang arias and art songs in Italian, German, and French along with popular ballads. The audience often requested her signature “Old Folks At Home” (“Swanee River”) as an encore. The song had been written in 1851 in “negro dialect” by Stephen Forster, a white man, to be performed by E.P. Christy, a white man who performed in blackface. A bowdlerized version remains Florida’s State Song.
In 1892, Sissieretta headlined the Negro Jubilee at Madison Square Garden in a pearl grey gown. “She is an artist,” said the New York Dramatic Mirror, “and the statement made by her manager that she is the greatest singer of her race should be altered to the statement that she is one of the best of any race.” Biographer Maureen Lee calls Madison Square the turning point of her career; there was even talk that the Metropolitan Opera would want her for “dark roles” in L’Africaine and Aida. Later that year, she became the first African American woman to sing at Carnegie Hall.
In the gloaming, oh my darling
Think not bitterly of me
In Louisville, on March 27, 1893, the diva played to a packed gallery and half-full orchestra. The orchestra seating was for whites, the upper gallery for blacks. “I have never met with anything like it before,” Sissieretta told the Louisville Commercial after the first night’s performance. Jim Crow was fully established in the South. “I think people of my race ought not to be shut out in this way. The gallery, you could see, was crowded and no more could go up there and still all the back part of the house was not taken. I didn’t know about it, or course. That’s a business affair.” She had had difficulty getting a suitable room in town.
What of her voice? Music scholar Eileen Southern dates the first documented recording of a black female singer to February 14, 1920, five years after Sissieretta retired from the stage.
The court said: “She feels now as if she could get along without her benefactor, and she has thrown down the ladder on which she ascended to the position she now enjoys.” He called her ungrateful. One of Sissieretta’s managers claimed she and her husband violated the terms of their agreement by booking concerts independently of him. In his statement, Judge McAdam agreed, forbidding Sissieretta from singing under any other management: “Every sense of gratitude requires her to be loyal to the manager who furnished her the opportunity for greatness, and every principle of equity requires her to perform her engagements according to the spirit and intent of the contract.”
After a performance in Cincinnatti, a music critic said: “Every true Christian and every sincere philanthropist must rejoice to find a member of the African race arising this high in the noble art of music.”
In 1894, Sissieretta appeared at Madison Square Garden again, this time under the direction of Antonin Dvořák. She sang the soprano solo in his original arrangement of “Swanee River.” Dvořák said: “The Negro melodies…are the product of the soil. They are American. These are the folk songs of America, and your composers must turn to them.”
By November, Sissieretta had a new business manager, a white man with an office in Carnegie Hall named Rudolph Voelckel, who led her on two tours of Europe in two years as the star of the Black Patti Concert Company. She sang at Covent Garden. She sang for the Kaiser.
A German newspaper said: “Her voice has power and fire, and the florid passages remind one of the rapid flow of a mountain brook.” Another wrote that while the comparison with Patti was fitting, “the adjective ‘black’ seems to us unnecessarily impolite. Miss Jones is evidently of Negro blood, but not alone of Negro blood. She is a mulatto of bronzed complexion and pleasant expressive features with full lips and high forehead and the bearing of a lady, even to the choice of costume.”
Though I passed away in silence
Left you lonely, set you free
For my heart was tossed with longing
What had been could never be
Sissieretta dreamed of living in Paris. “In Europe there is no prejudice against my race. It matters not to them in what garb an artist come, so he be an artist. If a man or woman is a great actor, or a great musician, or a great singer, they will extend a warm welcome….It is the artist soul they look at there, not the color of his skin.”
Sissieretta returned from Europe in 1896, perhaps to be closer to her mother. But black classical singers were no longer a “curiosity” to white audiences in the states, says music historian Eileen Southern, and “by the mid-1890s the black prima donna had almost disappeared from the nation’s concert halls.” Divas like Flora Batson retired to open music studios or direct community choirs.
Her husband, David, was unemployed and often drunk. Under Voelckel’s management, Sissieretta began twice-daily performances at New York’s newly opened Proctor’s Pleasure Palace, the city’s first all-vaudeville venue and her first non-concert appearances in the states. The Pleasure Palace gig paid well at $300 per week, and Sissieretta must have felt pressure to support her husband and mother.
She would never go back to Europe. Instead, Sissieretta became the star of the Black Patti Troubadours, a troupe of “forty colored specialty, vaudeville, and lyric stars” including “grotesque dancers,” acrobats, and a “protean artist,” according to biographer Lee.
For 19 seasons, Sissieretta made nearly twenty thousand dollars a year headlining the Black Patti Troubadours, more than any other African American entertainer at the time. Sissieretta filed for divorce in 1898, citing David’s problems with alcohol and gambling.
Judge McAdam said: “Talent is of little value without opportunity, and history records on its brightest pages the names of many who would have died in obscurity but for opportunity.”
The Black Patti Troubadours show had three parts: first, a one-act musical farce; next, a string of vaudeville acts—dances, acrobatics and impressions layered with songs; last, the “Operatic Kaleidoscope,” where Sissieretta would sing arias wearing her signature gown and jewels. The Troubadours played up to ten shows a week, up to 44 weeks a year, travelling in a private railcar to every state save Vermont and South Dakota. They performed for white and black audiences, especially in the South. Sissieretta appeared only in the third act.
“Positively the Greatest Colored Show on Earth”
“The Hit of the Season”
“The Greatest Singer of Her Race”
In the photograph she is seated, wearing a stiff embroidered gown, a pearl necklace, and arm-length gloves. Her chin rests on her hand. Her eyes are solemn. Lee captions: “Sissieretta looks confident and poised, almost regal.”
The Matinee Girl, a columnist for New York’s Dramatic Mirror, said in 1904: “[Swanee River] seems to be hers. I’ve heard nearly everyone sing it—Clara Louise Kellogg, Lilian Nordica, and the light complexioned Patti herself—but the song will always seem to me to belong exclusively to the stout negro woman in white who, her face grayish under the limelight, sang it with tears and longing and heartbreak in her voice.”
After 13 seasons, the Troubadours became the Black Patti Musical Comedy Company and Sissieretta took on speaking roles. “Yes, I am to be a sure enough actress this season,” she told Lester Walton of the New York Age. “I certainly feel elated.” The Indianapolis Freeman reviewed a Washington, DC performance in March of 1911: “Madame’s ‘Suwanee River’ brings down the house as of yore, and her stunning gowns and $15,000 worth of diamonds, worn at each performance, are revelations to the fair sex.” Sissieretta still preferred to sing.
It was best to leave you thus, dear,
Best for you, and best for me
The Age’s Walton said in 1911: “While the song ‘Suwanee River’ was not especially written for Mme. Sissieretta Jones (Black Patti), yet no singer has become so closely identified with this well-known composition so suggestive of Southern environment as the race’s leading soprano…To-day her voice still possesses that sympathetic rich timbre which made her famous years ago.”
Sissieretta spent her summers in Providence at 7 Wheaton St., the nine-room house off of Benefit Street that she had purchased for her sick mother a decade before. In 1914, the Black Patti Musical Comedy Company broke up and Sissieretta returned to Providence. She was 47.
Her neighbors said she wasn’t too close to anyone, save her mother, who died in 1924. To support herself, Sissieretta sold off her silver and all but three of her medals, eventually borrowing money from a neighbor. She kept the blinds drawn. On sunny afternoons, neighbors saw her humming in her rose garden. She wore beautiful feathered hats and furs.
On the morning of June 24, 1933, Sissieretta borrowed a dollar’s cab fare to go to the hospital. Baltimore’s Afro-American said two weeks later: “Black Patti, the elegant Madame Sissieretta Jones, is dead and the world that once sang her praises had to stop and scratch its head when that announcement was made last Saturday from Providence, R.I.” She died of stomach cancer. Her estate consisted of furniture, four paintings, a walnut piano, and two fur coats.
In the gloaming, oh my darling
When the lights are soft and low
Will you think of me, and love me
As you did once long ago
Sissieretta is buried next to her mother at Grace Church Cemetery in Providence. In May 2012, a plaque was dedicated in her name at the site of her old house on 7 Wheaton (now Pratt) Street on the East Side. Her grave is still unmarked.
Lyrics taken from “In the Gloaming” by Annie Fortescue Harrison and Meta Orred,1877
Historical data culled chiefly from Maureen Lee’s new biography Sissieretta Jones: The Greatest Singer of her Race, 2012, now available in paperback
ELLORA VILKIN B’14 sang for the Kaiser.