Performer’s voice resurrected, nearly 100 years later

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Ten years ago, Maureen Lee had no idea who Sissieretta Jones was. Since then, Sissieretta has taken over Lee’s life.

Originally from Cranston, the 63-year-old Lee this week published “Sissieretta Jones: The Greatest Singer of Her Race,” a biography of the African American singer who made a name for herself at a time when racial tensions still ran high in America.

“She was an extraordinary person,” Lee said.

Lee first heard of Jones in 2003, when her brother, George Donnelly, was working on the Rhode Island Treasures exhibits. The exhibit had some information on Jones, and the Rhode Island Heritage Society had donated some of the dresses from her stage career.

Little was known about the performer, though, and Lee was hooked. A former journalist, she loves to research, and her retirement from Clemson University was coming up fast.

“I thought, ‘this would be a great retirement project’,” she recalled. “I had always wanted to write a book, since I was about 6 or 7.”

Lee’s early research was a slow process. The only concrete information she could find was in a brief biography of the singer and the dissertation of a distant relative, who wrote about Jones in the 1960s. She expanded her search to newspaper clippings, and the folks at Emory University sent their microfilm collection from 1885 to 1915 over to the University of South Carolina library, close to where Lee now lives. She scoured the entertainment pages for Jones’ name. She also got her hands on a scrapbook of Jones’ that was on display at Howard University.

“It was so exciting to hold that scrapbook in my hands,” Lee said.

Lee and her husband visited Jones’ hometown in Portsmouth, Va., and toured Carnegie Hall, where Sissieretta Jones was one of the first African American singers to perform there. Carnegie management even had some old programs with Jones’ name.

Piecing Jones’ story together took four years, but Lee was more determined than ever.

“When I realized the scope of her career, and yet so few of us knew about her … I thought, it just doesn’t seem fair,” she said. “She got lost in history.”

Sissieretta Jones was born in Virginia three years after the Civil War. Her family moved to Rhode Island when she was just a girl after her father was offered a position as a pastor in a black church. By all accounts, Jones began singing at a young age.

“It was just an innate feeling that she was born with. She was always singing; she would get on top of her dresser or a chair and sing,” Lee said.

A dresser soon became a stage, and Jones became a well-known entertainer in the Ocean State.

Despite her popularity, Jones was still something of a novelty. There were few mainstream African American singers, but when she joined the Black Patti Troubadours, her career went to the next level. Jones would come out during the third act and specialized in operatic performance.

“Everyone had this idea that African Americans could only sing minstrel songs. For them to be learning classical music was a real novelty,” Lee said.

The Black Patti Troubadours gave Jones exposure, but had its pitfalls as well.

“The rest of the show, they were making fun of African Americans. There were stereotypes and this is what people expected from entertainers in those days. She had to work within the framework,” Lee said.

In 1982, Jones was hired by a white manager to go on tour. She would be away for 42 weeks at a time, visiting as many as seven cities in a week. The group lived and traveled in a rail car.

“Sissieretta sang in almost every one of the lower 48 states,” Lee said. “Almost every place I come into contact with, I can say where Sissieretta came and performed.”

Beyond the United States, the troubadours traveled to South America, Central America and Europe. Europe was one of Jones’ favorite destinations, and she often said she would like to return.

“She always said she liked being there because they didn’t recognize color. It didn’t matter to them,” Lee said.

At the time, Jones was paid about $150 per week, or about $8,000 a year. Today, that would be the equivalent of about $197,000 a year, making her one of the highest paid African American entertainers of the time.

Her signature song, “Suwannee River,” also known as “Old Folks at Home,” brought her around the world, and to the table of presidents. In 1892, Jones performed for President William Henry Harrison. It is rumored, though Lee could not confirm, that he was not the only president she performed for. She also performed at Madison Square Garden.

In 1914, the Black Patti Troubadours disbanded, and the performers went their separate ways. Within a year, Jones’ appearances trickled out, and she returned to live with her ailing mother in Providence. She lived off her holdings for a number of years, and eventually sold off many of her possessions. She died in 1933 from cancer.

The story kept Lee captivated for four years of research, and then another three years of writing and looking for a publisher. She settled on the University of South Carolina press, and the book was released this week.

Coinciding with the launch, Lee returned to Rhode Island to see a plaque she helped pay for, honoring Sissieretta Jones, erected in Providence. Last Friday night, May 11, the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society hosted a reception in Lee’s honor to unveil the book.

Holding a hard copy of her work last week, Lee said it has been a rewarding journey.

“It is so exciting to see nine years of your life come to fruition,” she said. “It’s been really neat.”

“Sissieretta Jones: The Greatest Singer of Her Race” is available through the Black Heritage Society, Brown University bookstore and Books on the Square. It can also be purchased at Amazon.com, or through Lee’s website, sissierettajones.com.

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