Stardom is hard to achieve and even harder to maintain, especially once a career has ended. Some stars just fade while others are forever forgotten.
Until their stories are unearthed and told in a book.
Such is the story of Sissieretta Jones, once the highest-paid black concert singer in the United States. Jones toured the world, enchanting audiences with her operatic soprano during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
She predated Josephine Baker, the first black female to star in a widely released movie. Baker is sometimes credited for being the first female to integrate an American concert hall, but Jones was singing in front of mixed audiences years before Baker was born in 1906.
And Jones did it in the South.
“Sissieretta Jones, ‘The Greatest Singer of Her Race,’ 1868-1933,” written by Maureen D. Lee and published by USC Press, revisits Jones’ career and life.
Lee, who lives in Columbia and owns Lee’s Book Attic with her husband, John, will be one of the featured authors at the SC Book Festival. The free festival will be held Saturday and Sunday at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center. Lee will sit on the “Women in History” panel at 10 a.m. Saturday in Carolina Meeting Room B.
It wasn’t her choice to dive into Jones’ life.
“She kind of picked me,” Lee said.
Lee, a native of Rhode Island, the state where Jones was raised, came upon Jones in 2003. She was in Rhode Island visiting family and her brother, George Donnelly, was working for the city of Providence at the time. Donnelly was working with others on an exhibit titled “Rhode Island Treasures,” and the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society had loaned two of Jones’ dresses to the show.
“They were going to be featured in the exhibit along with a panel showing her picture and giving some of the highlights about her life,” Lee wrote in a follow-up e-mail. “I saw the blueprints for this and became fascinated with her.”
Jones was born in 1868 in Portsmouth, Va. Her family moved to Rhode Island in 1876. Twelve years later, she was the lead soprano in an all-black troupe that toured the world. In 1892, she was invited to sing at the White House by President Benjamin Harrison. She sang in Madison Square Garden that same year.
Jones was often billed as the Black Patti, analogizing her to Adelina Patti, a well-known European opera star. It was considered a compliment in most circles, but Jones felt the sobriquet placed an unfair burden at her feet.
“She did not like it,” Lee said. “It had set her up for a comparison; that she would sound like the famous singer.”
But, Lee continued, “it was very good as publicity,” as seen in ads published in The State.
She was popular in the South, performing regularly for mixed audiences during her initial rise in popularity.
“In the early part and middle part of her career, she was singing for mixed-race audiences,” Lee, a former journalist at The State, said. “In the latter part of her career, it was mostly African-Americans.”
Performing for non-segregated audiences was tricky, particularly in Columbia where Jones sang 13 times, according to Lee’s research. (Jones went to Charleston 14 times.) On Dec. 15, 1900, Jones was scheduled to sing at the new Columbia Theatre. The theater, at Main and Gervais streets, was also city hall. Blacks were allowed to sit in the balcony at the show while whites sat on the floor. A review, printed in The State, stated that it was “simple justice” that the “better class of negroes” was allowed to see the performance with whites.
By the time Jones played Columbia on April 15, 1905, the theater reversed the seating arrangement. No white patrons came, and ushers, repulsed by the thought of having to seat blacks, quit. The white board members were left to provide the service.
“These are some of the things she faced,” Lee said. “By then, (the theater) realized it could make more money selling to African-Americans if they let them sit downstairs.”
Jones was the star of the Black Patti Troubadours, a 40-member, all-black touring musical comedy troupe. The group traveled with their own chef by railcar, the 20th century version of a tour bus.
Lee has worked on the book for nine years. (She acknowledged that at least one person has taken umbrage with the title.)
“It took four years to do the research,” Lee said. “She didn’t leave diaries, and not much was written about her.”
A relative, Lee said, wrote a dissertation about Jones before penning a self-published book. After reading the book, Lee had more questions than answers. And she began her quest.
“There was something about her,” Lee said. “She had all these accomplishments, but she was lost in history.”