Widely hailed as the possessor of one of the great singing voices of her day, Matilda Sissieretta Joyner (1869-1933) enjoyed a successful career as a concert and variety performer from the late 1880s to the World War I era. Joyner's career had two phases. First she was a soloist, appearing in concert halls, churches, and other venues in North America and Europe. Later, she spent two decades touring the United States as the star of an all-black variety entertainment show. It is an example of the peculiar nature of race relations in America that Joyner, whose extraordinary talent was almost universally acknowledged and whose concerts and variety shows drew mostly white audiences, never appeared in opera.
Joyner was born in Portsmouth, Virginia, as Matilda Sissieretta Joyner. The year of her birth is usually given as 1869. According to William Lichtenwanger in Notable American Women, no record of her birth has ever been found and the ages listed on her marriage and death records indicate that she was born around 1865. Joyner's father, Jeremiah Malachi Joyner, was a former slave and had been a body servant to his master until the end of the Civil War. After gaining his freedom, he became a minister in the Afro-Methodist Church. Joyner's mother, Henrietta, a former slave as well, was an accomplished amateur singer with a fine soprano voice. She grew up as an only child, her brother having died in infancy. In 1876, Joyner's father accepted an offer to become pastor of a church in Providence, Rhode Island, and the family moved north. A minister's salary was modest and Reverend Joyner took odd jobs to help make ends meet. Providence had a thriving black community in the 1870s and the atmosphere in the city was relatively progressive in regard to racial matters. Joyner attended the Meeting Street and Thayer Street schools, both of which had integrated student bodies and teaching personnel.
As a small child, Joyner exhibited a love for singing. "When I was a little girl, just a wee slip of a tad, I used to go about singing. I guess I must have been a bit of a nuisance then, for my mouth was always open," the adult Joyner recalled in an interview with the Syracuse Evening Herald, excerpts of which are included in Willia Daughtry's doctoral dissertation about Joyner. During her teenage years, Joyner made her first public appearance as a singer at the Pond Street Baptist Church in Providence and studied voice at the Providence Academy of Music.
In 1883, Joyner married David Richard Jones, called Richard, whom Rosalyn M. Story in And So I Sing: African-American Divas of Opera and Concert says was described in contemporary accounts as a "handsome mulatto from Baltimore." Richard Jones had worked as a hotel bellman and as a newspaper dealer. The couple is said to have had a child who died in infancy.
Marriage does not seem to have hindered Joyner's budding professional career. She is said to have attended the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston in the mid-1880s. In 1887, Joyner made her professional debut in Boston at a concert to benefit the Irish nationalist Charles Stewart Parnell, whose political career was being jeopardized by a personal scandal. Her performance at the Parnell concert, before an audience of 5,000, drew a strongly positive reaction. The following year Joyner made her first New York appearance in a concert at Steinway Hall.
Later in 1888, Joyner sang at Wallack's Theater on Broadway, becoming the first African American to appear on stage at the prestigious theater. The attention she received at this performance led to her joining a troupe of black musicians on a tour of the West Indies. The West Indian tour lasted eight months and was a triumph. In Jamaica, Haiti, and other countries, Joyner was greeted by enthusiastic crowds and presented with jewel encrusted honors from local governments and admirers. Returning to the United States, she appeared with baritone Louis Brown in several East Coast cities and briefly returned to Providence for further study of voice. In the winter of 1890-1891, she made another tour of the West Indies.
It was during her early concert years that Joyner was dubbed the "Black Patti" by the New York Clipper, a theatrical newspaper. The moniker alluded to Adelina Patti, the Italian American soprano and star of the Metropolitan Opera. Joyner's managers and promoters repeated the "Black Patti" description in advertisements and it became strongly identified with her for the remainder of her career. Although Joyner adamantly disapproved of the nickname at the beginning, she then used it to her advantage in the later years. According to Daughtry, instead of finding the comparison to another artist pointless and the "black" qualification condescending, Joyner used it "as a weapon—a kind of boomerang—which drew the predominately white audience to her—an audience which expected to find a freak, a comical, awkward, unusually strange creature before it, but which found instead an artist who exhibited the same training known to the white singer of her time as well as a decorum which gave new dignity and finesse to the Negro image on the concert stage."
In February 1892, Joyner performed at the White House for President Benjamin Harrison and his luncheon guests in the Blue Room. Her vocal selections, typical of her concert repertoire at the time, were the popular songs "Home, Sweet Home," "Swanee River," and the cavatina from Meyerbeer's opera Robert le Diable. Enchanted by Joyner's talent, the First Lady, Caroline Harrison, presented the singer with a bouquet of White House-grown orchids. In later years, she returned to Washington to sing for Presidents Grover Cleveland, William McKinley, and Theodore Roosevelt. African American performers at the Executive Mansion were rare but not unprecedented. According to Elise K. Kirk in Opera News, singer Marie Selika performed at the Rutherford B. Hayes White House in 1878, and the Fisk Jubilee Singers performed for President Chester Alan Arthur in 1882. However, it was not until 1901, when Booker T. Washington lunched with Theodore Roosevelt, that an African American was invited to the White House as a sit-down guest.
True notoriety came to Joyner in April 1892 when she was selected to be the star attraction at the Grand Negro Jubilee at New York City's Madison Square Garden. The Jubilee was a three-day extravaganza featuring hundreds of black singers and dancers and a military band. Joyner sang popular songs and opera selections, including the "Siempre libera" aria from La Traviata. She was said to have been the highlight of the show. Offers for bookings increased so dramatically after this appearance that it was hard for Joyner to fully absorb what had happened. "I woke up famous after singing at the Garden, and didn't know it," she said in an article quoted by Story.
In June 1892, Joyner signed a contract with Major J.B. Pond, a high-powered promoter and manager of entertainers and lecturers whose clients included novelist Mark Twain and clergyman Henry Ward Beecher. Pond built a program around her, featuring classical and popular music. According to Story, the program became "something of a forum for the best black talent of the day." Among the performers who appeared with Joyner were poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar and Joseph Douglass, a violinist and grandson of Frederick Douglass. She sometimes sang with accompaniment by black pianist Alberta Wilson, giving audiences a chance to marvel at two accomplished African American women musicians holding forth on a concert hall stage.
In 1893, under the management of Pond, Joyner earned two thousand dollars for a one-week engagement at the Pittsburgh Exposition. It was said to be the highest salary paid to a black performer up to that time. Also in 1893, she performed at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago where she was a top box-office draw.
Management problems began to plague Joyner's career beginning in 1893. The details are vague. It is possible that she found Pond's management style exploitative and more focused on making quick money than in fostering a long-term concert career. Other troubles are said to have stemmed when Joyner's husband, Richard, booked engagements for his wife without the permission of Pond. Her marriage was troubled due to Richard Jones's penchant for gambling and drink and his inability to hold a job. The couple divorced sometime between 1893 and 1898.
In the mid-1890s, Joyner broke with Pond and under new management participated in a charity concert at Madison Square Garden to benefit the New York Herald 's Free Clothing Fund. The renowned Hungarian composer Antonin Dvorak conducted the concert. Dvorak, then director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York, was an admirer of African American people and culture. Strains of black folk music can be heard in Dvorak's famous "Symphony No. 9: From the New World." At the Free Clothing Fund benefit, Joyner sang the soprano solo from Rossini's Stabat Mater with an all black male choir singing the chorus. "Mme. Jones was an enormous success with the audience. To those who heard her for the first time she came in the light of a revelation, singing high C's with as little apparent effort as her namesake, the white Patti," wrote a reviewer in the New York Herald. Joyner then performed in England, France, and Germany. In London, she participated in a Royal Command performance for the Prince of Wales (future King Edward VII) at the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden.
In 1896, Black Patti's Troubadours were formed under the auspices of New York theatrical managers Voelkel and Nolan. As the name suggests, Joyner was the main attraction of this travelling show, which also offered comedians, dancers, acrobats, jugglers, and other variety entertainers. Her appearances in the Troubadours came in what were called "Operatic Kaleidoscopes," which offered scenes from famous operas, such as La Boehme, Rigoletto, and Carmen, sung with full costumes and scenery.
Joyner's greatest dream was to sing in a full-scale opera. Many critics agreed that her voice and dramatic flair were well suited to opera. "The thought was irresistible that she would make a superb Aida, whom her appearance, as well as her voice, suggested," wrote a writer for the Philadelphia Times, quoted by Story. A few offers were made in regard to opera after her initial rise to fame in the early 1890s but nothing ever materialized. Undoubtedly, Joyner's race was the reason she never appeared with prestigious opera companies, such as the Metropolitan. It was not until the 1950s that black singers appeared with major American opera companies. However, Denis Mercier points out in Notable Black American Women that all-black opera performances began to be done after the turn of the century and it is unclear why Joyner never participated in any of these productions.
Black Patti's Troubadours traveled across the United States and were popular with both white and black audiences. A writer for the Detroit Evening News, in an article quoted by Story, said that "without exception the Black Patti Troubadours company is the best colored theatrical organization that has visited this city. Every member of it seems to be a star."
Despite its success, Joyner was not entirely happy as leader of the Troubadours. She felt the company was essentially a minstrel show and not the proper showcase for her serious "Operatic Kaleidoscopes." The appeal of Black Patti's Troubadours reached its peak in the first decade of the twentieth century, then began to wane along with a general decline of minstrelsy. In 1916, the company gave its final performance at the Gibson Theatre in New York City.
Joyner's career came to an end with the demise of the Troubadours. Aside from a concert at Chicago's Grand Theatre, she made no further professional appearances. Returning to Providence, she looked after her elderly mother, took in two boys who were wards of the state, and occasionally sang at local churches. To gain income, she sold off most of the possessions she had accumulated during her career, and in her last years received public assistance. She died of cancer on June 24, 1933, with only the generosity of friends preventing burial in the city's "potter's field."
Dictionary of American Negro Biography, W.W. Norton, 1982.
Notable American Women, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.
Notable Black American Women, Gale, 1992.
Rust, Brian, The American Record Label Book, Arlington House, 1978.
Salem, Dorothy C., ed., African American Women: A Biographical Dictionary, Garland Publishing, 1993.
Story, Rosalyn M., And So I Sing: African-American Divas of Opera and Concert, Warner Books, 1990.
New York Herald, January 24, 1894.
New York Times, August 27, 1893.
Opera News, November 1, 1980.
Providence Journal-Bulletin, February, 20, 1997.