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Sissieretta Jones Graced Carnegie Hall

Sissieretta Jones was considered one of the greatest operatic sopranos of her time. She performed across Europe, Africa, India and Latin America. She sang at the White House and Madison Square Garden with Anton Dvorak conducting. In 1892 she became the first African-American woman to headline Carnegie Hall.

It was a time of struggle for all women. But the road for African American women was infinitely more so. While Jones’s career flourished, her skin color precluded her from joining a professional opera troop in America. As a result, she changed directions in 1896 with the Black Patti Troubadours. She and her troop were highly successful.

Her full name was Matilda Sissieretta Joyner Jones (1868-1933). She preferred to be called Madame Jones, but became known as The Black Patti. It is believed that moniker was first used in a review in the New York Clipper in 1888, comparing Jones to Adelina Patto who was a renowned Italian diva.

The Black Patti Troubadours featured roughly 50 performers. Among them were acrobats, dancers, comedians and singers. The wide variety of acts included blackface minstrel and “coon” songs based on black stereotypes. Madame Jones performed operatic selections only, generally to close the show. Over time, she was able to include increasingly elaborate costumes with scenery.

Highlights from the career of Madame Sissieretta Jones

#1–Matilda Sissieretta Joyner was the daughter of former slaves. The civil war ended on April 9, 1865. She was born in Portsmouth, Virginia, January 5, 1868 (or 1869). Her family relocated to Providence, Rhode Island. She was self-taught until she studied under Italian diva, Ada Baroness Lacombe at the Providence Academy of Music when she was fifteen. She later studied at the Boston Conservatory of Music.

#2—In the Spring of 1888 Madame Sissieretta Jones toured the West Indies and South America with the Tennessee Jubilee Singers. Reviews of her performances were stellar.

#3—She sang at the White House for President Benjamin Harrison in 1892. She also sang for Presidents Grover Cleveland, William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt.

#4—Madame Sissieretta Jones headlined the Grand Negro Jubilee at Madison Square Garden, also in 1892.

#5—In June of 1892 she became the first African American Woman to perform at Carnegie Hall. Andrew Carnegie laid the cornerstone for the building in 1890, announcing a policy of egalitarianism.

Program From Carnegie Hall Performance, June 15, 1892.

Society of the Sons of New York: Farewell Concert of Sisieretta Jones, the Black Patti, June 15, 1892, program page 1

“Carnegie “Recital Hall” (now Zankel Hall) program, featuring African American soprano Sissieretta Jones, June 15, 1892. The New York Review called Jones “the most gifted singer the age has produced.” She performed the same year for President Benjamin Harrison at the White House, and over the next 25 years was perhaps the best known and highest paid African American singer in America.”

#6—During a nine-month European tour, she performed for royalty including the Prince of Wales and future Kind Edward VII of England, Albert Edward and Wilhelm II. He presented her with the diamond-studded cross that she wore during many performances. She routinely wore a large collection of medals given to her by fans.

#7—From 1896 to 1916 Madame Sissieretta Jones ran the Black Patti Troubadours. Many of her performers went on to become famous, including the team of Jack Walker and Bert Williams. Williams was later considered one of the greatest entertainers of Vaudeville and one of the most popular comedians of his time. He was also the best-selling black recording artist before 1920.

Jones was a great role model for Aida Overton. Aside from running her own financially successful troupe, she paved the way for African-American entertainers. While performing with The Black Patti Troubadours, Aida Overton fell in love with George Walker. Within a year, they were married. They soon became one of the most admired and elegant couples in entertainment.

In spite of their success, Jones and her troop endured racism across America. In 1896 the Supreme Court legalized racial segregation in the Plessy v. Ferguson decision. African American audience members were sometimes forced to sit in upper galleries, even if the better seats were empty.

Separate but equal facilities also meant that the beloved performers could not stay in many hotels. Madame Jones purchased her own rail car.

The Cornell Daily Sun 17 October 1898

The Cornell Daily Sun, Volume XIX, Number 23, 17 October 1898


“Those who are fortunate to be able to attend the performance of Black Patti’s Troubadours at the Lyceum Wednesday night may confidently anticipate a genuine treat. The company is without question one of the best of its kind organized in this or any other country. The fifty artists who comprise the company have been selected with rare judgment and they offer superb support to Black Patti, who ranks among the great singers of the age.

The performance they render includes comedy, burlesque, vaudeville and opera presented with magnificent and costly costumes and appropriate scenery. All the popular “coon songs” and “buck dances” are introduced in the first part and the great operatic Olio in which Black Patti and her glorious voice are important factors embrace selections from the various standard grand and comic opera.”

Madame Jones Died In Poverty

Few African American women in America became millionaires like Madame C. J. Walker .  Although Jones was the highest-paid black performer of her time, Jones was unable to support herself through opera alone. She retired to Providence in 1916 to care for her ailing mother. She died penniless in 1933.

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