Sissieretta Jones: "The Greatest Singer of Her Race," 1868-1933

Sissieretta Jones: "The Greatest Singer of Her Race," 1868-1933

Sissieretta Jones: "The Greatest Singer of Her Race," 1868-1933

Sissieretta Jones: "The Greatest Singer of Her Race," 1868-1933

Synopsis

Matilda Sissieretta Joyner Jones, whose nickname the "Black Patti" likened her to the well-known Spanish-born opera star Adelina Patti, was a distinguished African American soprano during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Performing in such venues as Carnegie Hall and Madison Square Garden, Jones also sang before four U.S. presidents. In this compelling book-length biography of Jones, Maureen Donnelly Lee chronicles the successes and challenges of this musical pioneer. Lee details how Jones was able to overcome substantial obstacles of racial bias to build a twenty-eight-year career performing in hundreds of opera houses and theaters throughout North America and Europe.
Serving as a role model for other African American women who came after her, Jones became a successful performer despite the many challenges she faced. She confronted head on the social difficulties African American performers endured during the rise of Jim Crow segregation. Throughout her career Jones was a concert singer performing ballads and operatic pieces, and she eventually went on to star in her own musical comedy company, the Black Patti Troubadours. Critics praised Jones as America's leading African American prima donna, with some even dubbing her voice one in a million.
Lee's research, utilizing many black newspapers, such as the New York Age and the Indianapolis Freeman, concert reviews, and court documents brings overdue recognition to an important historical songstress. Sissieretta Jones: "The Greatest Singer of Her Race," 1868-1933 provides a comprehensive, moving portrait of Jones and a vivid overview of the exciting world in which she performed.

Excerpt

Some biographers claim their subjects choose them. Such was my experience with Sissieretta Jones. I first heard about her while visiting family in my native state of Rhode Island. My brother, George Donnelly, was working with others in Providence to create a unique Rhode Island history exhibit called “Rhode Island Treasures.” the idea behind the exhibit was to feature artifacts and historical documents seldom seen by most Rhode Islanders. Two of those items were dresses worn by Matilda Sissieretta Jones, the African American soprano who is the subject of this book. Sissieretta, born in Virginia in 1868, grew up in Providence and retired there after a lengthy singing career.

From the moment I read a brief description of her life and saw her photograph, I was fascinated and wanted to know more about her. Soon after I retired from Clemson University, I began researching more about her life. My husband, John, and I visited the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Manuscript Division, at Howard University in Washington, D.C., where Sissieretta’s scrapbook and three of the nearly twenty medals she received for singing are kept in the Dr. Carl R. Gross Collection. It was a thrill to touch the scrapbook Sissieretta must have held in her hands many times, to see her photographs, and to hold three of the medals she wore.

After reviewing the newspaper clippings in the scrapbook, most of which are not dated and many of which do not bear the name of the newspaper, John and I began a four-year task of methodically reviewing old New York entertainment weeklies and two prominent African American newspapers (the New York Age and the Indianapolis Freeman) that provided news of the stage. We examined these newspapers, which were available on microfilm, for the years 1885 to 1915 (the year she retired from the stage). With the information we gathered, we put together a schedule of her whereabouts, month by month, for the years she performed on the stage. (See appendix B for a sample of her touring schedule, this one for the 1901–2 theater season.) Using these schedules, as well as newspaper articles and reviews about her concerts and shows, I was able to piece together details about her career and chronicle her . . .

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