UNSUNG SISTERS OF BLACK HISTORY MONTH
Matilda Sissieretta Joyner was born on January 5, 1869 in Portsmouth, Virginia to pastor Jeremiah Joyner and choir singer Henrietta. At six she moved with her family to Rhode Island and began singing in her church choir with her mother at the Pond Street Baptist Church. When she turned fourteen she began her formal musical training at the Providence Academy of Music and also wed David Richard Jones, a hotel bellman who would become her manager.
In 1887 she performed before an audience of 5,000 at the Boston Music Hall. She later performed for the first time in New York at Stein way Hall on April 5, 1888. It was then she was labeled "the Black Patti" after being likened to popular Italian opera singer Adelina Patti. When Jones then performed at NYC's Wallace Theater she garnered the attention of Adelina Patti's manager who prompted her to tour the West Indies with the Fisk Jubilee Singers (see below). Sissieretta Jones began her first international tour in 1888 and again in 1892.
Jones's talent afforded her the opportunity to perform for sitting President Benjamin Harrison in February 1982. She would go on to sing for the next three consecutive Commanders-In-Chief - Grover Cleveland, William McKinley, and Theodore Roosevelt in addition to the British Royal Family. Jones returned to New York in April 1892 to perform at the Grand Negro Jubilee held at Madison Square Garden before an audience of 75,000. Her growing popularity and undeniable talent earned her invitations to sing at the Pittsburgh Exposition and the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois. In the following June of 1892 Sissieretta Jones became the first African-American to sing at the Music Hall in New York (now Carnegie Hall).
By 1895 Jones had risen to be one of the most well known and highest paid African-American performers of her era. In the 1890's she formed a troupe called the Black Patti Troubadours. Together they drew crowds anticipating a typical black music "coon show" but found Sissieretta Jones singing opera at the end instead of the traditional cakewalk. As the group grew in popularity touring the United States the careers of many Black performers were launched by their association with the Black Patti troupe.
As a solo act Jones toured South America, Australia, India, and Africa. Her European stints included London, Paris, France, Berlin, Cologne, Munich, Milan, and St. Petersburg. However, in 1896 Jones returned home to care for her ailing mother but still toured with the Black Patti Troubadours. In 1899 she divorced her husband for his gambling and misuse of their money. She later retired in 1915 and ended up having to sell most of her possessions to survive until her death in 1933. She dies penniless of cancer in Providence, Rhode Island on June 24, 1933.
She would be inducted into the Rhode Island Music Hall of Fame 80 years later in 2013.
Sissieretta Jones's Legacy:
The Fisk University Jubilee Singers was the first group to publicly perform the songs of slaves and they shared them with the world. When the Fisk Jubilee Singers first performed in the late 1800s, they sang ballads and patriotic anthems; it was their director, George White, who suggested that they sing the songs of their ancestors. The group was hesitant at first to expose this sacred music but agreed to add a few spirituals to their program. The music was well-received, often moving audiences to tears. With their performances, the Jubilee Singers were able to keep alive these songs of the past and reveal the emotions and strong faith of the African American slave.
The group was arranged by the Fisk University treasurer to raise funds for the school when it faced financial straits just five years after opening. In 1873 the group grew to eleven members ad toured Europe for the first time. Funds raised that year (an estimated $150,000) were used to construct the school's first permanent building, Jubilee Hall. Jubilee Hall is regarded as the first permanent structure erected in the south for the education of African-Americans. Today, Jubilee Hall, designated a National Historical Landmark, is one of the oldest buildings on campus. The beautiful Victorian Gothic building houses a floor-to-ceiling portrait of the original Jubilee Singers, commissioned by Queen Victoria during the 1873 tour as a gift from England to Fisk.