When young Matilda Sissieretta Joyner stepped onto the stage at Providence’s Pond Street Baptist Church in the early 1880s and began to sing, no one in the church hall could have imagined the young black child would one day perform at the White House, Madison Square Garden, and Carnegie Hall.
Many years later, long after becoming a successful and famous soprano, Sissieretta Joyner Jones (1868-1933) recalled that early church performance. “Oh, I was scared so, I could hardly catch my breath. When the applause came I almost fell off the stage. But timidity was soon replaced by confidence, and I kept on singing in charitable enterprises.”
And sing she did, becoming an internationally known soprano who thrilled both black and white audiences with her magnificent voice as she sang operatic arias, European art songs, and concert ballads. The press dubbed her “Black Patti,” a sobriquet that likened her to the famous European opera diva Adelina Patti, although she was not particularly fond of the nickname. By the time her twenty-eight year career ended, Sissieretta had performed in Europe, South America, Cuba, the West Indies, Canada, and extensively throughout the United States, appearing in forty-six of the contiguous forty-eight states. She retired to Providence in 1915, where she had maintained a home and other property on the East Side throughout most of her career.
The gifted and ambitious soprano, who lived during a time when pervasive racism in America was the norm, was forced to limit her professional desires because of this racism. An operatic career was unavailable to her. “Despite these limitations, she found ways to circumvent the burden of racism to share her voice with the world and her vision of herself as an artist who could help bring about social change.” She was not the first black woman vocalist known for performing serious music during this time period, but she was the most famous and her career lasted the longest.
Matilda Sissieretta Joyner was born January 5, 1868 in Portsmouth, Virginia, three years after the end of the Civil War. She was the first of three children born to Jeremiah and Henrietta Joyner. Her father, born into slavery in North Carolina, was a carpenter and African Methodist minister in Portsmouth when Sissieretta was born. Sissieretta’s mother, also from North Carolina, was illiterate and took in washing and ironing to help support the family. She was an exceptional soprano who sang in the choir of Portsmouth’s first black Baptist church, Ebenezer Baptist Church. Sissieretta’s siblings died at an early age.
Shortly after her brother’s death, Sissieretta and her parents moved to Providence and settled at 20 Congdon Street, near the Congdon Street Baptist Church. Reportedly, Jeremiah had been offered a part-time ministerial position at one of Providence’s black churches, although no written documentation as to which church has been found yet.
The Joyners likely were welcomed into Providence’s relatively small African American community through their church membership. The family would have found Providence thriving and life much better here for African Americans than in Virginia after the end of Reconstruction. Many African Americans living in Providence in the 1880s had a rich community and social life and were comfortable financially. The Providence correspondent to the New York Age wrote in his April 28, 1888 column, “In no other city in the Union will you find a colored community better off than in Providence, when it comes to money.” This black newspaper and the New York Freeman regularly reported about various African American clubs and social organizations in Providence, such as the Apollo Club and the Narragansett Hallmen, which hosted balls, recitals, cultural programs, and cruises down Narragansett Bay. But Providence was also a city where racial prejudice was the norm, where skilled black mechanics couldn’t get jobs and white clerks would not always rent skates to black children at the local skating rink.
Sissieretta’s mother and father separated two years after the family moved to Providence. She and her mother moved to 7 Jackson Court (a street that used to be between Benefit and North Main Street), where Henrietta took in washing and ironing to support herself and Sissieretta. The young girl attended Meeting Street Primary and later Thayer Street Grammar School. She began singing at church programs and festivals at Pond Street Baptist Church and other local churches.
By 1883, at the age of fifteen, Sissieretta began formal music training at the Providence Academy of Music. It is unknown how she and her mother could afford this instruction or whether it was offered for reduced rates. About this same time, the young Sissieretta fell in love with David Richard Jones, a multiracial, twenty-one-year-old man from Baltimore who worked as a bellman at Providence’s fashionable eight-story Narragansett Hotel (formerly at the southwest corner of Dorrance and Weybosset streets). They married on September 4, 1883, and lived with Sissieretta’s mother, Henrietta. They had one child, Mabel Adelina Jones, born on April 9, 1884, who died two years later from “pharyngitis and croup.” After recovering from her daughter’s death, Sissieretta began to turn more attention toward vocal training and performances. Some press reports said she studied at the Boston Conservatory of Music and others claimed she attended the New England Conservatory. One music scholar, John Graziano, has suggested she may not have attended either school, but instead had a private tutor in Boston. Wherever she received her vocal training, it helped her to develop her voice and expand her repertoire of operatic and concert music. How she paid for this training is unknown.
Sissieretta was fortunate to live in Providence, which had a black community interested in a wide variety of musical programs and a number of talented African American performers with whom she could share the stage. These entertainers, often noted in newspaper accounts, included actor Benjamin Lightfoot; the musical Melvin sisters — Carrie, who played the violin and mandolin, and Louise, a pianist; tenor Will Pierce; and the prominent mezzo-soprano Flora Batson. Pierce performed with Sissieretta for several years and Lightfoot eventually managed Sissieretta for a short time. Batson, like Sissieretta, had gained experience in Providence’s black churches. By the time Sissieretta met the mezzo-soprano, Batson had performed three years, 1883-1885, at the People’s Church in Boston and had sung in many concerts, including a European tour and a temperance revival in New York City.
In 1885, Batson was performing with the well-known Bergen Star Concerts, led by John G. Bergen, a white concert manager who promoted black singers and arranged concerts to entertain black audiences. By the end of that year, Batson had become the lead singer for the Bergen Star Concerts. Sissieretta performed with Batson at a concert and reception for the Fourth Battalion Drum Corp on May 21,1885, at Providence’s Armory Hall. Soon after, Sissieretta and Batson began to appear together more often at various functions in Providence and also at several Bergen Star Concerts, which gave Sissieretta the exposure and experience she needed. Sissieretta joined Batson in a concert at New York City’s Steinway Hall in April 1888 and the following month she and Batson sang before nearly 8,000 people at a concert in Philadelphia.
Later that spring, Sissieretta was hired to star in an all-black troupe that toured parts of South America and the West Indies. She made two successful tours there between August 1888 and July 1891. Frequently, local government officials or civic leaders would give her jewelry or a medal, often made of gold, to thank her for her performance. She wore those medals, about seventeen of them, pinned to the bodice of her gown, when she performed during her early concert years.
By early 1892 the young soprano began to become known in the United States. On February 24th she sang at a luncheon hosted by President Benjamin Harrison and his wife, Caroline, in the Blue Room of the White House. One of the selections she sang was Stephen Foster’s “Old Folks at Home,” more commonly known as “Swanee River.” This song became her signature song for the rest of her career.
Two months after her White House concert, she was the star soprano of a three-day “Grand Negro Jubilee” held at New York’s Madison Square Garden April 26-28, 1892. On opening night, before an audience of 5,000 people, most of whom were white, Sissieretta dazzled the crowd with the cavatina from Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable, “La Farfalla” by Ettore Gelli, and “Sempre Libera” from Verdi’s La Traviata. She sang two encores, “Swanee River” and “Maggie the Cows are in the Clover” and received a standing ovation from the audience.
Sissieretta’s appearance at Madison Square Garden marked a turning point in her career. An important management contract, additional vocal training, and many more concert opportunities followed this performance. Years later, while thinking back on this event, Sissieretta said, “I woke up famous after singing at the Garden and didn’t even know it.” This particular concert had such historical significance in the history of African American entertainment that Langston Hughes and Milton Meltzer, in their 1967 book, Black Magic ,A Pictorial History of Black Entertainers in America, named Sissieretta’s 1892 Madison Square Garden performance one of the thirty-six milestones in the history of “the Negro’s participation in American entertainment.”
Critics praised Sissieretta’s performance and voice following the concert, noting her phrasing, enunciation and the passion and power in her voice. A critic from the Detroit Plaindealer was also impressed with her performance, but he predicted her career would be “hampered” because of her race. Opera, he said, would be unavailable to her and eventually concert appearances would be limited once the novelty of an African American singer performing serious music “died out.”
Sissieretta defied the odds and spent the next four-and-a-half years on the concert stage making enough money to support herself, her husband, and help her mother back in Providence. She signed a contract with a prominent white manager, James B. Pond, in June 1892. Pond, who represented famous people like Mark Twain and Charles Dickens, apparently knew how difficult it would be to convince white musicians and vocalists to share the stage with Sissieretta so he paired her on stage with white foreign musicians and vocalists. These combinations also helped to attract more white concertgoers. The savvy manager booked concerts where she would be seen by predominately white audiences and written about in the mainstream press, which helped to advance her fame.
For example, Pond booked several appearances for Sissieretta in the resort town of Saratoga Springs, New York. A review in the Saratoga Union, following an outdoor concert August 6, 1892 in the city’s Congress Springs Park, described Sissieretta’s voice as “beautiful, clear, steady and resonant. There is neither brass in her notes nor thickness in her phrasing. Her enunciation is also perfect. The exquisite crispness with which she executes complicated scales in rapid time delighted all. Withal she sings intelligently, without affectation, and with much feeling.”
She remained under Pond’s management for two years, but their relationship was rocky at best. In 1893, the New York Superior Court had to resolve a contract dispute between the two parties. Their contractual relationship ended in mid-1894.
During her concert years (1891 to mid-1896) Sissieretta sang throughout the United States and Canada. She sang popular ballads, art songs, and operatic selections from operas such as Robert le Diable, Les Huguenots, La Traviata, and L’Africaine. Her concert experiences included weeklong appearances at the 1892 and 1893 Pittsburgh Exposition, an evening performance at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, an 1894 concert at Madison Square Garden led by the famous Czech composer Antonin Dvorak, an appearance at London’s Covent Garden in 1895 during a nine-month European tour, and four performances at Carnegie Hall between 1892 and 1896.
In February 1895 Sissieretta, her husband and her new manager, Rudolph Voelckel, sailed for Germany, where she made her European debut. During the nine months she was in Europe, she performed for the Duke of Cambridge and the Prince of Wales in London, and gave concerts in Berlin, Paris and perhaps Italy. Apparently, she enjoyed being in Europe, where she experienced less racism than at home. She particularly enjoyed London. She once told a newspaper in 1906,” My appearance at Covent Garden, London, was one of the most exalted triumphs of my career. There was a fine audience and women took bouquets from their corsages to throw upon the stage.”
Sissieretta left Europe and returned to New York in November 1895 to sing in a vaudeville show at Proctor’s Pleasure Palace in New York City. Although she hoped to return to Europe the following spring, that was not to be. Little did Sissieretta know that her brief foray into vaudeville would signify a major career change. Her new manager, Mary Rodman, found it easier to secure vaudeville bookings for Sissieretta than concert appearances. Most of the other black women singing serious music on the concert stage during Sissieretta’s day — such as Marie Selika and Nellie Brown Mitchell — also found less concert work and turned instead to opening music studios or directing church or community choirs. Music historian Eileen Southern wrote in her 1983 book, The Music of Black Americans: A History, “By the mid-1890s the black prima donna had almost disappeared from the nation’s concert halls because of lack of public interest.”
With concert appearances waning, Sissieretta accepted an offer from her former manager, Rudolph Voelckel, to star in a black musical comedy road show to be called the Black Patti Toubadours, owned and managed by Voelckel and his partner John Nolan. The three-act show, similar in its organizational format to a minstrel show, included comedy, music, farcical skits, dance, and vaudeville routines, and featured Sissieretta singing operatic and concert selections in the third act, called the Operatic Kaleidoscope. With the Black Patti Troubadours, she could look forward to steady employment, dependable management and a good income to support herself and her husband. She could expect a forty-week season with an income of about $500 a week, or about $20,000 annually, which would make her one of the highest-paid African American entertainers of her time. This show also offered her an opportunity to continue her vocal career since her race precluded an opera career and good concert bookings were much less available.
The Black Patti Troubadours, with its all-black cast, debuted August 17, 1896, in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. After a first act skit by the troupe’s forty-member cast and a second act of vaudeville entertainment, Sissieretta made her entrance in the third act, called the Operatic Kaleidoscope. She and several other troupe members performed selections from The Bohemia Girl, Il Trovatore, and other operas. This three-part format, with Sissieretta only singing in the third act, lasted many years. She and several members of her troupe would sing selections from operas like Rigoletto, Orpheus in the Underworld, and Lucia di Lammermoor, as well as operettas and light operas like H.M.S. Pinafore and The Chimes of Normandy. Eventually she added more concert ballads and popular songs into the second act as well and by the end of her career she even had a speaking part.
Sissieretta, star of the Black Patti Troubadours, later called The Black Patti Musical Comedy Company, entertained both black and white audiences from mid-1896 until the end of 1914. For each of those years, the show’s season began in late August or early September of one year and finished in late May or early June of the following year. At the end of each season, she always returned to Providence to stay with her mother, with whom she had a very close relationship. In 1898, after fifteen years of marriage, Sissieretta filed for divorce from her husband for non-support and it was granted the following year.
Sissieretta and her troupe were on the road forty-two to forty-five weeks each season, often performing five to eight times a week. The company traveled across the United States and Canada by rail and even appeared in Havana, Cuba, in March 1904. The company performed often in California, Oregon, Texas, the upper Midwest and in states along the East Coast. By 1898, they became increasingly popular in the South and Southwest.
The Black Patti Troubadours, which became the Black Patti Musical Comedy Company in 1909, spent nineteen years on the road, making it the longest running African American road show in the United States in its day. Sissieretta’s company reflected the evolution of black entertainment from primarily farce comedies accompanied by music and patterned after three-part minstrel shows into more of a musical comedy and variety show. Black entertainment became more professional as African Americans who aspired to the stage had more opportunities to learn their trade and display their talent while working in well-run shows such as the Black Patti Troubadours and the Black Patti Musical Comedy Company. Many African American shows began to use opening comedy sketches with stronger story lines rather than relying on a farce with a thin story line whose main purpose was to introduce the cast, support various musical numbers, and get the audience laughing. Additionally, a crusade by black theater critics, the emerging black middle class, the black press, and some black entertainers and composers encouraged African Americans in these shows to stop reinforcing negative stereotypes by ridiculing themselves on stage and from using racial epithets in comedy sketches and music lyrics. This effort achieved some success and helped to elevate the quality of black musicals.
By 1914, as theater owners sought to attract larger audiences and increase revenue, they booked more inexpensive vaudeville shows and moving pictures than road shows, which contributed to the demise of the Black Patti Musical Comedy Company. The company opened its final season in September 1914. The first two months went well with weeklong bookings in Harlem; Washington, DC; Philadelphia; Baltimore; and Norfolk. Once the troupe headed into the South, business turned “very disastrous” according to Manager Voelckel.
The Black Patti Company arrived in Memphis, Tennessee just before Christmas 1914 to perform at the black-owned and managed Church Auditorium. Voelkel was unable to meet expenses and pay bills so he disbanded the troupe. Sissieretta retired to Rhode Island to live with her mother and stepfather. She performed two more times in 1915 on the vaudeville stage, without the Black Patti Company — a week in Chicago and two weeks in Harlem at the Lafayette Theatre. After her Chicago performance Sissieretta said her mother was ill and she was needed at home.
Sissieretta spent the remainder of her life in Providence at her home on the city’s East Side. She lived quietly in her nine-room home at 7 Wheaton Street, where she enjoyed tending her rose garden and occasionally singing in the choir of the Congdon Street Baptist Church. Little is known about her final years. Some reports in a Providence newspaper said Sissieretta worked as a cook for a wealthy family on the East Side at some point during her retirement years. She also supported herself by selling many of her valuables such as jewelry, silver, some of her medals and several rental properties she owned. At one time she had owned a second property on Wheaton Street and another at 15 Church Street and one at 94 Benefit Street. The Church and Benefit street houses still remain, but both the Wheaton Street houses are gone now. Even the street name has changed. Today the street (located below the statue of Roger Williams in Prospect Terrace Park) is called Pratt Street. In 2012, the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society honored Sissieretta’s memory by placing a plaque near her home site on College Hill at the intersection of South Court and Pratt streets, just east of Benefit Street.
Sissieretta’s neighbor, realtor William P. H. Freeman, who was also a former president of the local NAACP chapter, often helped Sissieretta by loaning her money to pay her property and water taxes, as well as her wood and coal bills. Sissieretta was quite poor when she died of cancer June 24, 1933. Freeman, who served as the executor of her tiny estate, ensured that Sissieretta was buried next to her mother at Grace Church Cemetery rather than in a pauper’s grave. Neither Sissieretta’s nor her mother’s graves are marked by headstones.
Had Sissieretta had more vocal training and been allowed a career with a professional opera company like the Metropolitan Opera, she might be remembered today like Marion Anderson, the first African American to sing with the Metropolitan Opera. Sissieretta helped pave the way for other African American opera divas. Unfortunately, no recording of her voice has ever been found, although the technology was available to do so during the latter part of her career.
Despite the barriers and limited opportunities Sissieretta faced in the racially segregated world in which she lived, this determined, confident and ambitious vocalist carved out a successful musical career, thus fulfilling a childhood dream to sing and share her voice with the world. She once said, “I love to sing; singing is to me what sunshine is to the flowers. The flowers absorb the sunshine because it is their nature. I give out melody because God filled my soul with it.”
Sissieretta has earned a significant place in the history of American musical entertainment and deserves recognition for her achievements.
In recent years, Sissieretta has finally begun to be recognized for her remarkable achievements. These include:
- Sissieretta was inducted to the Rhode Island Music Hall of Fame, in the spring of 2013.
- Ray Rickman, a Providence citizen historian, frequently conducts walking tours on College Hill that focus on Sissieretta. He also spearheaded an effort to restore one of Sissieretta’s gowns and displayed it at an event in Newport in 2014.
- Local vocalist Cheryl Albright sings some of Sissieretta’s repertoire in her play, Oh Freedom Over Me.
- The Rhode Island Historical Society’s magazine, Rhode Island History, featured a cover article on Sissieretta for its 2014 Summer/Fall issue.
- In 2014, an historical highway marker was installed in Portsmouth, Virginia, Sissieretta’s birthplace, near the Emanuel AME Church.
- New York’s Carnegie Hall has one of her medals on display.
Notes “Music Knows No Color,” Evening Herald, n.d., n.p. in Sissieretta’s scrapbook (hereafter referred to as SJScrapbook.) Sissieretta’s scrapbook contains press clippings, mostly from 1892-1896. It is locacted in the Dr. Carl R. Gross Collection at the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Manuscript Division, Howard University, Washington, D.C.  Maureen D. Lee, Sissieretta Jones: “The Greatest Singer of Her Race,” 1868-1933. (South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 2012), 244.  Lee, “Rhode Island’s Star Soprano: Sissieretta Jones,” Rhode Island History, 72/2, (2014): 43.  Other African American female vocalists included Nellie Brown Mitchell, Marie Selika, Elizabeth Taylor-Greenwood, and Flora Batson.  No birth certificate has yet been found to verify Matilda Sissieretta Joyner’s birth date. Various sources give different dates for her birth. The 1870 federal census lists Sissieretta as being two years old and her younger sister as nine months old, which indicates Sissieretta was born in 1868. The 1880 federal census also estimated her birth year to be 1868, although Sissieretta reported in the 1905 Rhode Island census that she was thirty-four years old and born on January 5, 1871. Willia Daughtry, whose 1968 doctoral dissertation about Sissieretta said her birth date was January 5, 1869, later revised the date to January 5, 1868 in her book Vision and Reality. Sissieretta, in an interview in the New York Dramatic Mirror (January 11, 1896) said she was born in 1869. Professor John Graziano, in his article, “The Early Life and Career of the ‘Black Patti,’” also believes she was born January 5, 1868. Like Graziano and Daughtry, this author believes Sissieretta’s birth date was January 5, 1868.  Willia Estelle Daughtry, Vision and Reality: The Story of “Black Patti” Matilda Sissieretta Joyner Jones. (Pittsburgh: Dorrance Publishing Company, 2002), 2.  Lee, Sissieretta Jones, 5.  “Providence People,” New York Age, April 28, 1888, 4.  “Providence People,” New York Age, April 28, 1888, 1; and “Providence Driftings,” New York Freeman, January 31, 1885, 1.  Daughtry, Vision and Reality, 2.  W. Allison Sweeney, “The Black Patti,” Indianapolis Freeman, August 29, 1891, Columbian Exposition edition, 2.  David Richard Jones and Matilda Sissie Joyner, Marriages Registered in the City of Providence, R.I., for the year ending December 31, 1883, 536.  Mabel Adelina Jones, April 8, 1884, Births Registered in the City of Providence, recorded July 1884, 221; and Mabel Adeline [sic] Jones, City of Providence Death Records, R.I., 1886, 714.  There are no records of Sissieretta’s attendance at the New England Conservatory, and the records at the Boston Conservatory for that period no longer exist. Based on various newspaper reports it appears she studied in Boston from August 1886 until late 1887. Professor John Graziano has suggested she may have studied with a private tutor in Boston. John Graziano, “The Early Life and Career of the ‘Black Patti’: The Odyssey of an African-American Singer in the Late Nineteenth Century,” Journal of the American Musicological Society 53 (2000): 549.  Rosalyn M. Story, And So I Sing: African American Divas of Opera and Concert. (New York: Warner, 1900), 33.  “State Election Providence May 26,” New York Freeman, May 30, 1885, 4.  “Quaker City Gossip,” New York Age, May 12, 1888, 1.  See Lee, Sissieretta Jones, 14-29 for details about Sissieretta’s two concert tours to the West Indies, Central America and South America.  “Madame Sissieretta at the White House,” Washington Post, February 25, 1892; and “The Great Prima Donna,” Washington Bee, February 27, 1892, 3.  “The Colored Jubilee,” New York Dramatic Mirror, May 7, 1892, 5.  Carl R. Gross, “A Brief History of the Life of Matilda Sissieretta Joyner Jones, the ‘Black Patti’” (short unpublished biography, Providence: 1966), 2. This document is part of the Dr. Carl R. Gross Collection, Collection 41-1 to 42-1, Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Manuscript Division, Howard University, Washington, D.C.  Langston Hughes and Milton Meltzer, Black Magic: A Pictorial History of Black Entertainers in America. (New York: Bonanza, 1967), 336, 338.  “A Patti with a Soul,” Detroit Plaindealer, May 20, 1892, 5.  Lee, Sissieretta Jones, 39-40.  “A Wonderful Performance,” Saratoga (N.Y.) Union, August 6, 1892, in SJScrapbook; and also reprinted in “Black Patti in Saratoga,” Washington Bee, October 1, 1892, 2.  Lee, Sissieretta Jones, 64-71.  See Lee, Sissieretta Jones, 45-92 for details of Sissieretta’s concert performances.  “Has Sung around the World,” Pittsburgh Post, March 11, 1906, 3.  Eileen Southern, The Music of Black Americans: A History (New York: Norton, 2nd ed., 1983), 244.  Graziano, “Early Life,” 587; and the Colored American (Washington, D.C.), July 9, 1898, as reprinted in Josephine Wright and Eileen Southern, eds., “Sissieretta Jones” in The Black Perspective in Music 4 (1976): 191-201.  “Correspondence, Massachusetts, Pittsfield,” New York Dramatic Mirror, September 19, 1896, 7.  Matilda Sissie Jones vs. David Richard Jones. Petition for Divorce, Case number 11643. Appellate Division of the Supreme Court in Providence, R.I. Filed June 4, 1898.  “Route,” Indianapolis Freeman, March 12, 1904, 5; and “Today’s News,” Fort Collins (Colo.) Weekly Courier, November 23, 1904, 11.  Rudolph Voelckel letter published in “A Disastrous Season,” New York Age, February 11, 1915, 6.  Maureen McGetrick, “Black Patti Was a Success, Her Audience Was a Failure,” Providence Sunday Journal, September 28, 1980, 14.  When Sissieretta Jones purchased Plot 10, Lot #111 at the corner of Benefit and Church streets in 1908, the lot had two houses on the property: one facing Church Street and one facing Benefit Street. She sold the Church Street part of the property in 1919 (Deed Book 587, 64, property records, Providence City Hall) and the Benefit Street property in 1921 (Deed Book 610, 333, property records, Providence City Hall).  Estate of Matilda S. Joyner, Administrative number 34296. Records of Probate Court, City of Providence, R.I., packets 1 and 2.  “Music Knows No Color,” Evening Herald, n.d., in SJScrapbook.