When I was in college, I wrote an ambitious paper about black people in Classical music. At the time, Leontyne Price, Grace Bumbry and Shirley Verrett were among the best known of a small group of classically trained singers who were changing the face of opera in the 1970’s, and I wanted to know about them, and become one of them. These ladies, as well as the other men and women who were in the profession, had to overcome skepticism, criticism on both sides of the racial divide, and out and out racism from many sources in order to become the great divas they were (and are.) But they never let the “isms” stop them from succeeding, and today are legends, and the inspirations for later singers like Jessye Norman, who would later inspire younger singers like me, and so on down the generational line. They, in turn, gave credit to earlier ladies like Marian Anderson, the first black singer at the Metropolitan Opera. They also gave their props to some amazing figures of the late 19th century, African American divas who took the Western world by storm. Brooklyn was an important stop in any diva’s tour schedule, so in this month of Black History, let’s celebrate the remarkable career of one of the greats, Madame Matilda Sissieretta Joyner Jones, known internationally as “the Black Patti.”
Her story is one of great accomplishment and great disappointment. She sang for presidents and kings, but died penniless and forgotten. She overcame many racial obstacles in order to become a huge success, but could never escape the realities of race in 19th century America. Matilda Sissieretta Joyner was born in Portsmouth, Virginia in either 1868 or 1869, to Henrietta and Jeremiah Malachi Joyner. Her father was a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal church, and at an early age, she began singing at church services. Everyone said she inherited her voice from her mother. The family moved to Providence, Rhode Island in 1876, encouraged by a better economic and social climate in the North, and by 1883, young Sissieretta had enrolled in the Providence Academy of Music. That same year, at the age of 14, she married David Richard Jones, a news dealer and hotel bellman.
She didn’t give up on her music, and at 18, was accepted to the prestigious New England Conservatory of Music, in Boston. Her teacher in Boston was Flora Batson, one of the first black women in America to have an international career in classical music. Batson was known as the “Double-Voiced Queen of Song,” because of her wide vocal range that spanned baritonal sounds to high soprano, an effect she used with great skill. She would sometimes sing operatic arias, but her claim to fame was song: ballads and sentimental songs like “Last Rose of Summer”. She was said to have a beautiful and sweet voice, and great stage presence. She was also a Providence resident, and no doubt, knew, or knew of Sissieretta Joyner before she got to Boston. The black community was not that big.
Flora Batson would go on to a very successful concert career. In 1887, as Sissieretta Jones was making her own debuts, Flora had been with the all-black Bergen Star Concert Company for two years, and was now lead soprano. She married John C. Bergen that same year, causing no end of controversy and publicity, as he was white. It made international headlines wherever the company travelled, and probably helped at the box office. At the height of her career, she sang for Queen Victoria, Pope Leo VIII, and Hawaiian Queen Liliuokalani.
The Bergen’s remained happily married and successful until he died in 1896. She later married Gerard Millar, an African-American basso with the company, and continued to tour, until the public’s tastes changed, and vaudeville replaced classical fare. She came back to the States, and donated her services to charities, singing for causes she espoused. On December 1, 1906, she died suddenly, only two days after a concert she had given in Philadelphia. She was only 42.
Meanwhile, back in 1887, Sissieretta was finishing up her education at the Boston Conservatory, and performed for an audience of 5,000 at the Boston Music Hall, as one of the performers in a benefit concert for the Parnell Defense Fund, for Irish national liberty. She was a great success, and gained the attention of concert managers Abbey, Schoffel and Grau. They signed her to a debut at the Wallack Theater in New York City, in June of 1888. It was the start of her professional singing career.
At the advice of another manager, she set out on a six month tour of the West Indies with the Tennessee Jubilee Singers of Fisk University. This choir was already famed for their renditions of Negro Spirituals, sung classically, with great musical depth and passion, by a choir of African American men and women in formal dress, a great departure from the popular “coon show” entertainment of the time. Ms Jones would receive the first of her many medals that she is usually shown wearing, on this tour. There would be many more to follow.
Over the next ten years, Sissieretta Jones would appear in concert, both with concert companies and in solo performances, in the crown cities of Europe, as well as in America. She performed at the White House for four different presidents: Harrison, Cleveland, McKinley, and Teddy Roosevelt. She also sang for Queen Victoria and the royal family in England, and the Kaiser in Germany. She was the first black performer to appear at Carnegie Hall, in 1892, and was a muse and inspiration for composer Antonín Dvořák. She sang at Covent Garden in London, and the Wintergarten in Berlin.
In the United States, she was invited to perform at the Pittsburgh Exhibition, and the Chicago Worlds Exhibition, in 1893. In the 1890’s, she was the highest paid African American performer in the world. Here in Brooklyn, she and her company appeared in concert in several venues from 1891, well past 1902, which is the cut-off date for the digital editions of the Brooklyn Eagle. She sang in Brooklyn’s opera houses and concert halls, and she even sang a concert at the Rev. Talmage’s Brooklyn Tabernacle.
Over the years, Sissieretta Jones was the toast of the town, internationally. She received a total of seventeen medals from various cities and governments, which she wore with pride. The nations of the Caribbean, where she performed often, showered her with gifts and honors. The Governor of Haiti gave her a medal, and the citizens of St. Thomas, a diamond and emerald brooch. She received a diamond tiara from another West Indian nation. At home, the Irish of Providence, Rhode Island, her hometown, gave her an emerald shamrock. She was wealthy, with four homes, money and fame. But it came at a bittersweet price.
Early in her career, Sissieretta Jones’ voice was compared to that of Adalina Patti, the famous Italian coloratura soprano, at the time, the most famous singer in the world. The name, “the Black Patti” would stick to her for her entire career, and she could never shake it. She preferred to be called “Madame Jones”, but no one listened. It’s one thing to be favorably compared to someone else, it’s quite another to not be allowed your own success, but only seen against the reflection of someone else. Jones’ voice was apparently one of a kind, with the rich lower register many black singers naturally have, which could rise, soar and dance at the top, with the best of them. She was highly trained in the Italian operatic repertoire, and didn’t deserve to be the “Black Anyone”. She was her own creation, her own major talent. Yet, in researching in the Brooklyn Eagle for this story, a search for “Black Patti” yielded 132 entries, a search for “Sissieretta Jones” gave me six entries, and all were clarified with “Sissieretta Jones, the Black Patti.” That was her fame and her curse.
Like many performers, writers, and citizens abroad of color, Madame Jones could be the toast of Paris, but couldn’t appear in many places in her own country. She wrote to a friend that Europe was so much less prejudiced than the United States, and that “it matters not to them what is the color of an artist’s skin. If a man or a woman is a great actor, or a great musician, or a great singer, they will extend a warm welcome. … It is the soul they see, not the color of the skin.” She wanted to sing at the Metropolitan Opera, and was considered for a lead role, but management and racial policies forbade it. It wouldn’t be until 1955 that the Met would cast Marian Anderson in a small (very) unromantic role, finally breaking the color barrier there.
By 1896, Madame Jones was tired of fighting with those who couldn’t see Negro performers in serious entertainment. Figuring it was better to have some control of stereotypes than none at all, she formed her own touring troupe. Called The Black Patti Troubadours, and later, the Black Patti Musical Comedy Company, she headed a group of 40 jugglers, comedians, dancers and singers who combined vaudeville, minstrel, musical review and grand opera. Madame Jones herself would appear in excerpts of opera scenes, and she and other classical singers in the troupe would perform arias, popular songs, duets and choral numbers, as well as spirituals, trying to impress upon her audiences that black people had dignity and the ability to be much more than what was usually expected. She would always end her show, not with the usual minstrel show cakewalk, but with her signature songs and arias. The troupe would perform for twenty years. Most of her Brooklyn appearances were with her Troubadours.
At the age of 46, in 1915, she quit the stage. She returned to Providence to take care of her ailing mother, and to devote herself to charity work. She and her husband had long ago divorced, and she had no children of their own, so she took in homeless children and worked with her church to help others. In order to support herself, she ended up selling three of her four houses, and eventually, her jewels, her medals, and almost everything else she owned. In her final years, she was penniless, and would depend on the charity of William Freeman, a real estate agent and president of the local chapter of the NAACP, who paid her taxes and water bill, and provided coal and wood. She died of cancer at the age of 74, in Rhode Island Hospital, on June 24, 1933. She is buried in Providence.
Because of Flora Batson and Sissieretta Jones, the path for African-American singers exists. It wasn’t easy for Marian Anderson, or Leontyne Price or the rest, but it was now possible to have a career, to sing at the Met, and in the great opera houses of the world. Brooklyn played her part in hosting this amazingly talented woman, who dazzled her audiences with only the power of her voice.