Last updated: November 29, 2021
Sissieretta Jones was an internationally famous singer who was the first African American to perform at Carnegie Hall.
Have you ever been blocked from expressing your creativity? How did you respond?
Sissieretta Jones was born Matilda Sissieretta Joyner in Portsmouth, Virginia in 1868. Her family moved to Providence, Rhode Island when Jones was six. She sang in the choir of the African Methodist Episcopal Church where her father was a minister. Jones's talent was obvious. She started formal voice training and eventually moved to Boston to study at the New England Conservatory of Music.
Jones's star rose rapidly after popular performances in Providence, Boston, and New York in the late 1880s. She performed soprano arias by European composers like Giuseppe Verdi and Antonin Dvorak. Jones sang to crowds of thousands of people at New York City's Madison Square Garden and the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois. In 1892, she sang for President Benjamin Harrison at the White House. The same year, she became the first Black person to perform at Carnegie Hall.
Her fame quickly became international. Jones toured the Caribbean with the Fisk Jubilee Singers. On a long European tour, she noticed less racism than she had faced in the United States. "She was feted everywhere, especially in Paris," a San Francisco newspaper wrote in an article about her. "In Rome, a city she only passed through, crowds went to the depot to see the colored singer and beg her to let them hear her voice."
By the time Jones returned home in the mid-1890s, it had become even more difficult to work as a Black performer in the US. Some of the most prestigious concert venues in the country, like New York's Metropolitan Opera, refused to book her because of her race.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court's decision in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) upheld racial segregation. Black touring artists and musicians risked the humiliation and danger of performing for white audiences and then being turned away from the hotels and railcars where those same audiences stayed and traveled. Jones spoke out against the common practice of segregated theaters, in which paying Black audiences were relegated to crowded upper balconies. “I think people of my race ought not to be shut out in this way,” she told a Louisville, Kentucky newspaper.
To support herself and continue to perform, Jones formed a traveling group of Black performers called the "Black Patti Troubadours." "Black Patti" was Jones's nickname--after a white opera singer named Adelina Patti. Though Jones disliked the name, it helped to sell tickets. The Troubadours toured the country. Their shows started with a mix of vaudeville songs and sketches. But they always concluded with lavish operatic set pieces in which Jones's talent could shine.
After nearly twenty years of touring, Jones returned to Providence to take care of her sick mother. She used her savings for medical care and living expenses, and died in poverty in 1933. Fortunately, she was not forgotten. The composer W.C. Handy included a tune about her in a 1944 songbook called Unsung Americans Sung. In 2017, a fundraising campaign collected money to erect a headstone to mark the 150th anniversary of her birth.
 The New England Conservatory of Music was added to the NRHP in 1980.
 The Jackson Park Historic Landscape District and Midway Plaisance, sites of the World’s Columbian Exposition, were added to the NRHP in 1972.
 Carnegie Hall was designated a National Historic Landmark on December 29, 1962 and added to the National Register of Historic Places on October 15, 1966. At the time of Jones’s performance, it was known as the Music Hall.
 Grace Church in Providence, RI, in whose cemetery Jones is buried, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972.
Cooper, Michael. “Overlooked No More: Sissieretta Jones, a Soprano Who Shattered Racial Barriers.” New York Times, Aug. 15, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/15/obituaries/sissieretta-jones-overlooked.html
"Is a Singer By Nature." San Francisco Call, July 4, 1896, pg. 5. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85066387/1896-07-04/ed-1/seq-5/
Lee, Maureen. Sissieretta Jones: "The Greatest Singer of Her Race"," 1868-1933. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2012.
Sotiropoulos, Karen. Staging Race: Black Performers in Turn of the Century America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006.
Thomas, Heather. "Sissieretta Jones: World-Famous Black Soprano." Headlines and Heroes, Library of Congress, Feb. 26, 2019. https://blogs.loc.gov/headlinesandheroes/2019/02/
Article by Ella Wagner, Cultural Resources Office of Interpretation and Education.