Jones, Sissieretta (1869–1933)

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Jones, Sissieretta (1869–1933)

African-American soprano. Name variations: Matilda Jones; Matilda Joyner. Born Matilda Sissieretta Joyner in Portsmouth, Virginia, on January 5, 1869; died in Providence, Rhode Island, on June 24, 1933; daughter of Jeremiah Malachi Joyner (a minister) and Henrietta Joyner; attended the Meeting Street and Thayer Street schools, Providence, Rhode Island; studied voice at the Providence Academy of Music and the New England Conservatory, Boston, Massachusetts; married David Richard Jones (a newsdealer and bellman), on September 4, 1883 (divorced 1898); no children.

The daughter of a Baptist minister, soprano Sissieretta Jones was born in Portsmouth, Virginia, on January 5, 1869. Around 1879, the family moved to Providence, Rhode Island, where Jones attended grammar school and sang in her father's church. At age 14, she was married to David Richard Jones, a young man from Baltimore who worked variously as a newsdealer and a hotel bellman, and even served as his wife's manager during her early career. However, in 1898, Jones filed for divorce, charging her husband with drunkenness and nonsupport.

Although details of Jones' life and career are obscure, it is generally believed that she received her early voice training at the Providence Academy of Music and may have also attended the New England Conservatory in Boston. She made her New York debut in 1888, followed by a six-month tour of the West Indies as a featured performer with the Jubilee Singers of Fisk University. For the next decade, she appeared with various concert companies and gave some solo concerts. During this period, she reportedly toured Europe, sang at the White House, and gave a command performance for the Prince of Wales. Her most publicized appearances were at the "Grand African Jubilee," held in Madison Square Garden in New York, April 26–28, 1892. Her trained operatic voice was acclaimed by critics as one in a million, and newspapers dubbed her "the Black Patti," a reference to the famous Italian soprano Adelina Patti . (Jones disclaimed the comparison and always called herself Madame Jones.) Jones generally performed a program combining operatic arias with popular songs like "Old Folks at Home" and "The Last Rose of Summer," although, as time went on, her audiences began to push her toward a more ethnic repertoire.

In 1896, Jones embarked on the second phase of her career, formulating a troupe of jugglers, comedians, dancers, and singers called the Black Patti Troubadours. Combining elements of vaudeville, minstrel, musical review, and grand opera, the troupe enjoyed great success, playing primarily to white audiences in major cities across the country. The second half of the show often included what Jones called an "operatic kaleidoscope," an expanded version of her excerpts, presented with scenery and costume, and including portions of such operas as Lucia, Il Trovatore, Martha, and El Capitan. The troupe flourished for a decade, but by 1916 audiences for the hybrid productions were growing scarce, and Jones was forced to disband the troupe. The final performance was at the Gibson Theater in New York, and the last payroll checks were said to have bounced.

Sissieretta Jones returned to her home in Providence where she devoted her later years to church work and caring for her ailing mother. She died in obscurity and poverty at the age of 74. Unfortunately, no one ever thought to make a recording of Jones, so her magnificent voice was lost to subsequent generations.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1983.

Smith, Jessie Carney, ed. Notable Black American Women. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1996.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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