We are excited to announce that we received funding from Rhode Island Council for the Humanities to research two women from the state -- Sissieretta Jones, the first African American to sign on the mainstage at Carnegie Hall, and Annie Smith Peck, the first mountaineer to conquer the highest peak in South America -- and plan a community engagement event in Rhode Island. See more about them below!
Matilda Sissieretta Joyner Jones (1868-1933) began singing at an early age in a baptist church ministered by her father. By 1892, she became the first African American to sing on the main stage at Carnegie Hall, at a time when access to most classical concert halls in the U.S. were closed to black performers and patrons. She performed opera at the White House for four U.S. presidents and became an international sensation, receiving multiple medals and badges which she would often wear simultaneously on top of elegant, glittering gowns. But the rise of Jim Crow laws and segregation, after the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson ruling, ended her career as a high art musician and necessitated her move into vaudeville.
Annie Smith Peck (1850-1935), one of the first women in America to become a college professor, took up mountain climbing in her forties. She gained international fame in 1895 when she first climbed the Matterhorn in the Swiss Alps-- not for her daring ascent, but because she undertook the climb wearing pants rather than a cumbersome skirt. Fifteen years later, at age 58 and after five failed attempts, Peck was the first mountaineer ever to conquer Mount Huascarán (21,831 feet) in Peru, the highest peak in South America. A dedicated supporter of a woman’s right to vote, she hung a “Votes for Women” banner on a nearby summit in 1909. She continued to mountain climb around the world into her eighties.