Clip | Unladylike2020: Unsung Women Who Changed America - Sissieretta Jones was a Trailblazing Black Opera Singer

Sissieretta Jones became the first Black woman to headline a concert on the main stage at Carnegie Hall in 1892. Jones was heralded as the greatest singer of her generation and a pioneer in the operatic tradition at a time when access to most classical concert halls in the U.S. were closed to black performers and patrons. She also performed at the White House and abroad.

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Sissieretta Jones was the leading African American singer of her generation.

And one of the first African American women to perform at Carnegie Hall.

1892, New York, New York.

24-year-old Sissieretta Jones sang opera at the newly built Madison Square Garden concert hall to an audience of thousands.

Unfortunately, we have today no recordings of her voice.

There were very few African Americans who recorded at that time, but we have many descriptions of her voice from the press.

How powerful it was and the emotion and the sympathy that you could hear when she's sang.

Madison Square Garden was really the big turning point in her life.

This prima donna with her beautiful silk gowns, her hair coiffed, the long gloves and the metals across her chest to say, in her subtle way, yes, I have accomplished this.

'I woke up famous after singing at the garden and didn't know it... singing to me is what sunshine is the flowers.

I give out melody because God filled my soul with it.'

Jones was born Matilda Sissieretta Joyner in 1868 in Portsmouth, Virginia, just after the end of the Civil War.

Her parents were devout Methodists; her father, a pastor, had been born into slavery.

In 1976, the family moved to Providence, Rhode Island, where her father had been offered a ministerial position.

They went north looking for a better life than in the South.

Jones began singing in the church choir at an early age.

'After singing a solo at a Sunday-school concert, some people said to my mother, 'the child sang a high C; you should let her learn music.'' Maybe it was a benefactor at the church who got the money together.

She went to the Providence Academy of Music and got some vocal training.

She married a hotel porter in 1883, at age 15, and had a daughter who died as a baby.

In 1886, Jones pursued additional vocal training in Boston.

She began touring music halls throughout the Northeast to great acclaim.

And was hired by a white manager as the lead vocalist of the Tennessee Jubilee Singers, performing arias, gospel, and popular tunes.

She'll be limited to concert appearances because there isn't any opportunity for her to sing in opera.

Opera companies weren't hiring African American singers, and most white American musicians were not going to appear on the same stage with Sissieretta.

In 1888 and 1890, Jones and the troupe toured throughout the Caribbean to packed, racially-mixed concert halls.

The second tour was managed by an all black team, including her husband.

That's when she was given the title of the greatest singer of her generation.

And she was given all of these metals and precious jewels.

And the more she acquired, the more she pinned on her chest.

Jones soon became known as the 'Black Patti' - a comparison to Italian opera star, Adelina Patti.

Opera was a European art form and so her manager decided this was the way we were going to promote her.

And unfortunately it stuck throughout her entire career.

'It rather annoys me to be called the 'Black Patti,' but I have a voice and I am striving to win the favor of the public by honest merit and hard work.'

To be so gifted in these times as a black person, I can imagine it was one of the most frustrating things.

Because she couldn't just be Sissieretta Jones.

She had to be the 'Black Patti,' which was demeaning.

My name is J'Nai Bridges and I'm a Mezzo-Soprano opera singer.

Recently I made my Metropolitan Opera debut singing Queen Nefertiti in Akhenaten, by Phillip Glass.

The first time that I walked onto the stage, I think my heart skipped a beat, maybe three. But it really felt like I was home.

I like to call myself an opera athlete.

We are our instruments, as an opera singer, we're unamplified. And so singing for these 4,000 seat opera houses, you have to literally sing from your toes to your head.

And it takes great strength.

In 1892, Jones sang at the White House for President Benjamin Harrison, and reportedly performed for three other U.S. presidents.

The following year, she became the first African American woman to headline a concert on the main stage at Carnegie Hall - slated on the same program as noted abolitionist Frederick Douglas.

One of the highest honors I've received is being invited to perform at Carnegie Hall.

In 2018, I made my solo recital debut and to think that she had stood on that stage in the hardest of times in America, really kind of brought it full circle to me.

It almost felt like she gave me her blessing.

After touring Europe, where she performed for emperors, kings, and princes, the tide of Jones's career turned.

The U.S. Supreme Court's 1896 Plessy v.

Ferguson ruling ushered in a new era of segregation and racial violence.

Even having sung for four presidents, racism at that point with the Jim Crow laws made it ten times more difficult for her to succeed.

'They tell me that my color is against me.

But I am proud of what I am.'

At a time when minstrel shows performed in blackface, stereotyped and demeaned black culture, Jones became the star of the 'Black Patti Troubadours,' a popular vaudeville show made up of 50 African American acrobats, comedians, dancers, and trained singers.

For the next 19 years, she was on the road.

They would travel by rail and they would go from one city to the next, 42 to 45 weeks a year.

Five or six cities in a week.

She faced extreme discrimination, unable to stay in hotels.

So they had to eventually get their own train car.

So she would sleep in her train car.

Segregation not only affected how the 'Black Patti Troubadours' traveled, but also how audiences saw the show.

The white audiences, of course, sat in the orchestra and the black audience sat upstairs.

And there weren't that many white audience members, but they wouldn't allow the blacks to come and sit in those chairs.

'Why, putting the colored people off in the gallery and leaving all those vacant seats downstairs!

I think people of my race ought not to be shut out this way.'

Opera houses for the longest have pretty much looked like one thing.

And that is older white people.

I have seen people look down on African Americans in this field because they might think that this isn't our art form.

And it's just not true.

Opera is for everybody and it should represent our community.

It should represent America.

Jones retired from the stage in 1915 to care for her aging mother in Providence.

Despite being the highest-paid African American performer of her time, Jones had to sell her metals and properties to survive until her death in 1933.

Benefactors and fans raised money to place a headstone on her grave in 2018.

I'm completely convinced that without Madame Sissieretta Jones, there would be no Marian Anderson. There would be no Leontyne Price.

There would be no Jessye Norman.

There would be no me.

She not only changed the opera world, but she changed history.

What a queen!

'We come through the furnaces of affliction and persecution and become as gold, tried in the fire.

As the crushed rose admits the sweetest perfume, so the negro, bruised and beaten sings, the sweetest songs.'