Street Stories

Reviving the history of legendary opera singer Sissieretta Jones

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) -- The voice of Providence native Sissieretta Jones brought her fame, wealth and recognition around the world, but until recently the exact location of her final resting place remained a mystery,

As were the opera singer's accomplishments to many Rhode Islanders.

Ray Rickman, Executive Director of local non-profit Stages of Freedom, emphasizes she was "a giant," and he has spent years trying to revive her legend.

"She was fantastic as a performer, and beautiful," Rickman said with an emphasis on the word "fantastic." "Successful, wealthy. Performed for four Presidents of the United States. The Kaiser of Germany. The British Royal Family."

Often, in a sharply segregated America, she was the first black person to perform at many all-white venues, including Carnegie Hall.  

But she died in poverty, too poor to afford even a headstone. She was laid to rest in 1933 in the Grace Church Cemetery next to her mother who had died three years before.

Finding the exact location was difficult until someone noticed her maiden name was handwritten on the back of the now yellowed cemetery card for her mother's interment.

Rickman led the effort to restore one of the soprano's performance gowns and also helped get a memorial plaque erected in Providence near Pratt and South Court. 

Now, his goal is to mark her final resting place.

"The goal here is that people in Providence and beyond will get to know Sissieretta Jones," Rickman said.

Rickman acknowledges his quest to make that happen is actually a labor of love.

"Oh yeah," he said, smiling. "I've been in love with her for 27, or 28, years." 

Stages of Freedom launched a GoFundMe campaign earlier this year that raised just over $6,000 to help pay for the headstone, which was created by the Warren Monument Company.

The granite includes details of Jones's life and on the back, an engraving that mark's her mother's final resting place as well.

The stone is also equipped with a chip that can link you to a webpage to learn more about Jones. It will include how she used her talent to become and bold and brave civil rights leader during the late 1800's and early 1900's, only decades after the Civil War.

"You could be lynched for standing up for yourself if you were black," Rickman said.

Rickman said many of the contracts Jones signed with all-white venues, included a clause that sometimes was missed.

"She would sign it. Then she would say, can black people attend my performance," Rickman said. "And they said, 'Nope.' She said, 'Well, cancel it.' You didn't see that little clause at the bottom. 90 percent of the time they caved."

Jones retired in 1915 and moved back to Providence to take care of her ailing mother. By that time, she had multiple homes and enough assets to sustain her for years.

In retirement, she performed multiple times a year at the Congdon Street Baptist Church.

But the money eventually ran out, and she died in poverty. 

"But she is not forgotten," Rickman said. "Far from it."

Stages of Freedom has organized a three-day celebration dubbed, America's First Black Diva; Sissieretta Jones at 150. The seven event program runs from June 7 to June 9.

Email Walt at wbuteau@wpri.com with you story ideas and follow us on Twitter: @StreetStories12 and @wbuteau. 


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