The Greatest Singer of Her Race

Oct 27, 2012 | Music

Here’s something you may not have known about Providence: this was, for most of her life, the home of the great opera star Sissieretta Jones. She was an extremely versatile soprano with a clear tone. Like other black performers of the time, she had to leverage that versatility by performing in a range of contexts because so many mainstream opera venues were not open to her because of her race. In fact, she was known widely, and still is, unfortunately, as “The Black Patti” after Italian soprano Adelina Patti. The condescending nickname works to deny Jones full credit for her achievements but her career speaks for itself. She was the first African-American to sing at Carnegie Hall. She performed for four presidents and British Royalty. She enjoyed great international acclaim, traveling to the Caribbean, Africa, India, Australia, Europe, and Russia. She performed with the Fisk Jubilee Singers and other artists before forming her own Black Patti Troubadors, a successful touring vaudeville act that  used the imposed moniker to build real capital. You can read more about Jones and her career here:

Rhode Island Music Hall of Fame Historical Archive

Wikipedia

And on Bill Zick’s Africlassical Blog

Anyway, it changes my experience of Providence to know that this great artist lived, worked and died here. She attended the Providence Academy of Music; she was buried in Grace Church Cemetery. I may never have learned all this had I not grown accustomed to the regular predictability of the Midwestern urban grids.  As small as it is, I get a little bit lost in Providence once or twice a week. It was on the  most recent of these unplanned exploratory moments that I happened to drive past the following historical marker:

“The Greatest Singer of Her Race Was Here”

The marker was nearly hidden in a tiny, sun-dappled copse between cozy little mansard Georgians nestled on the slope of College Hill. I almost missed it but am glad I didn’t. I am grateful to the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society for their work in getting it erected. While modest, it provides important recognition and a reminder —Florence Price hasn’t the equivalent in Chicago so far as I know (just one example that comes quickly to mind). A public humanities line of thought came to me: how could music enhance the experience of standing there reading that sign? Hidden speakers? Headphones attached to the signpost? Text to hear a mobile recording? Alas, Sissieretta Jones made no recordings. At least for now, we’ll have to be content with the gentle rustling of leaves in the copse.

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