In retrospect, it’s hard to believe that Sissieretta Jones became such a famous opera star. She was African-American, the daughter of a former slave, and grew up in Providence at the end of the 19th century. But Jones found a way to study classical music and won over mainstream audiences. At her height, Jones performed around the world, becoming the highest paid black performer of her day. Today, Jones’ name is largely forgotten, as is her burial site, which remains unmarked.
Author Maureen Lee wants to change that. Last February, Lee started a fundraiser on the crowdsourcing platform GoFundMe, successfully raising the $6,250 necessary to carve and place a gravestone for the musical legend in Grace Church Cemetary. Lee is collaborating with Stages of Freedom, an empowerment organization for inner-city youth, to raise the funds. There is a plaque about Jones in the RI Music Hall of Fame in Pawtucket, and another at the corner of Pratt and South Court near her former home here on the East Side, but Jones’ resting place has lay empty since her death in 1933.
“With no known recordings of Jones, there has been nothing to anchor her to our collective memory,” says Robb Dimmick, program director of Stages of Freedom. “Time is brutal to the biggest, most capable musical stars. They live on a short-lived stage.”
“It always broke my heart,” says Lee, who grew up in Providence but has lived the past 34 years in South Carolina. “I thought it was a terrible injustice. But [the fundraiser] has been wonderful. People have written me to tell me they really support what we’re doing.”
Lee first learned about Jones through her brother, George Donnelly, who was working for the RI Tourism Bureau at the time. Jones’ life story captivated Lee, a former journalist, who went on to write a 2012 biography, Sissieretta Jones: “The Greatest Singer of Her Race,” 1868-1933 published by the University of South Carolina. Jones died penniless, and she narrowly avoided being buried in a pauper’s grave. No monument was ever raised.
To celebrate the 150th anniversary of Jones’ birth, Stages of Freedom will host “America’s First Black Diva,” a series of cultural events from June 7–9, culminating in public headstone ceremony. Lee will spend that month in Providence to visit with family and speak at the Athenaeum on June 8. And she hopes locals will take notice.
“With all the pervasive racism at the time,” says Lee, “opera wasn’t an option. But Sissieretta persevered. She was passionate. She was confident. She didn’t let anybody stop her.”