She sang her way into history

Journal-Bulletin file photo

More than a century ago, the walls of the Congdon Street Baptist Church reverberated with the "sweet, clear" voice of a young woman who went on to become a music legend.

Madame Sissieretta Jones, who grew up in Providence, toured the world to share her "soprano voice of great richness," considerable range and "impeccable enunciation," one critic said. Critics credited Sissieretta with forcing the "musical and theatrical worlds in the United States to accept the Negro in a new image."

Jones was the first black woman to sing at Carnegie Hall, she sang for the Prince of Wales, and was invited to the White House to sing before three different presidents, including Benjamin Harrison in 1882.

"She had most of the qualities essential in a great singer: the natural voice, the physical figure, the grand air and the engaging personality," said James Weldon Johnson, a contemporary lyricist of the time.

Jones was born Matilda Sissieretta Joyner in Portsmouth, Va., in 1869. She was the daughter of a Baptist minister, Jeremiah Joyner, and Henrietta Joyner, from whom Jones apparently inherited her enchanting soprano voice.

When Jones was 7, the family moved to Providence, in search of better educational and economic opportunities.

At 14, she began her first formal music training at the Providence Academy of Music and at music schools in Boston. The same year, she married David Richard Jones, "a gambling man" who went on to manage his wife's career and lavishly spend their money until the couple divorced, in 1900.

In 1892, at the age of 23, Jones sang in New York's Madison Square Garden.

A newspaper review of the performance compared her to famous Italian opera singer Adelina Patti, and it condescendingly tagged Jones as "the Black Patti," a nickname she disliked but was unable to shake.

Shortly afterward, Jones was considered to be cast in the lead role of a performance at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, which would have fulfilled her dreams. Racial prejudice kept her from appearing on stage. The Met's color barrier stayed in place for another 60 years, until Marian Anderson became the first black person to sing a lead role there, in 1955.

From 1895 to 1916, Jones led a troupe of singers and musicians on a tour through the United States and abroad. Called the Black Patti Troubadours, the group performed minstrel shows and musical skits.

While Jones initially considered the minstrel performances demeaning, she was able to expand her repertoire by singing spirituals and opera arias for the show's finale. The show served as a training ground for hundreds of black entertainers.

Jones was given many gifts from admirers, among them, a medal from President Hippolyte of Haiti, a bar of diamonds and emeralds from the citizens of St. Thomas, an emerald shamrock from the Irish people of Providence and a diamond tiara from the governor general of a West Indies island. She often wore her 17 medals across her chest during performances.

After touring for about 20 years, the Troubadours disbanded, and Jones returned to her home in Providence to care for her ailing mother and grandmother.

She lived the next 18 years at her home on Wheaton Street, taking in homeless children and selling mementos from her days of glory to pay her living expenses.

Jones died of cancer in June 1933 in Rhode Island Hospital. She was buried in Grace Church Cemetery, Providence.


Sources: Dictionary of American Negro Biography, edited by Rayford W. Logan and Michael R. Winston; Puritans, Pioneers and Pacesetters; eight people who shaped Rhode Island, by Marie Fontaine and Janice O'Donnell, and Providence Journal-Bulletin articles.

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