Mahalia Jackson was born October 26, 1911 in the Black Pearl section New Orleans. Raised by her mother until she was five years old, she grew up in what she called an "old shotgun shack" at Audubon streets between the railroad tracks and the Mississippi River levee.
Her great-grandparents were slaves who remained on the plantation following Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, working as sharecroppers raising crops on land they leased from the former plantation owner.
Her mother, Charity Clark, died when she was five years old. From then on, she was raised by her aunt, Mahala Paul (who was called Duke) in New Orleans. Her father, Johnny Jackson, worked as a longshoreman, moving cotton on the river docks when he could, cutting people's hair in a barbershop on some nights, and preaching without pay in a Baptist church on Sundays.
Her Uncle Porter would tell her how former slaves were defrauded of the wages they earned. Working twelve hours a day, it was rare for a black person to receive fifty cents a day. "How could a man call himself free when he was forever dependent, poor, and politically impotent?”
She quit school after eighth grade to work as a laundress, trying to figure out what to do with her life.
At 16, Mahalia joined her Aunt Hannah on board the Illinois Central Railroad heading to Chicago in search of opportunities in the north, like many African Americans in the South during the Great Migration. There, she joined the Greater Salem Baptist Church and began touring with the Johnson Brothers, Chicago's first professional gospel group.
She was untutored in classical music but was influenced by jazz and blues, specifically Bessie Smith. She would create her own style and establish herself as a gospel singer.
As she sung in church, Mahalia is said to have shook her body, clapped her hands, and sometimes got down on her knees or danced around on the stage and skipped in the aisles.
It would be until the 1930s during the Great Depression, when banks failed in America, sending people to the church for spiritual courage that Gospel music gained in popularity.
At 38, she was the first person to sing gospel music in Carnegie Hall. She sang in Madison Square Garden, in European concert halls and on radio and television.
During her lifetime, she would perform for kings and queens, presidents and prime ministers and kept going back to sing in churches for the people who loved her voice first. Despite hardships, she insisted on singing only gospel.
In 1954, Jackson signed with Columbia Records and became the first black gospel singer on a major label.
In 1962, she made her debut at New York's Philharmonic Hall. Another one of her many attempts to try to "break down some of the hate and fear that divide the white and colored people in this country."
Her personal struggles with racism would urge her to get involved in the Civil Rights movement at its onset. The laws were changing; first the school desegregation act in 1954, equal opportunity act in the 1960.
Mahalia participated in singing benefits wherever she could for the bus boycotters, the student sit-ins, for Martin Luther King's South Christian Leadership Conference. The two met in Denver, Colorado where she went to sing at a Baptist convention.
She would refer to the sixties as "the worst times since the days of slavery for relations between white and black."
In the mid-1950s, she purchased a red-brick, ranch-style house in Chicago. She received threatening phone calls, one warning "You're going to need more than your gospel songs to save you." Shots were fired through the windows of the house.
Despite this, she preferred Chicago to the South where she would not be served at a soda fountain in New Orleans until 1962.
She was an admirer or President Kennedy and he of her. She sang for his inauguration in 1961. She sang at the Lincoln Memorial before more than 250,000 marchers, she sang I’ve Been Buked, for the civil rights March on Washington in 1963.
Mahalia Jackson died at the end of January 1972 from a heart ailment that had troubled her during her later years. And is buried in Providence Memorial Park in Metairy, a New Orleans suburb.
In New Orleans tradition, people cry at the birth of a child, and rejoice at their death and passage into eternal life. At her funeral, they danced in the road and performed the traditional, happy Second-Line celebration. Aretha Franklin performed "Take My Hand, Precious Lord."
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- Bond, Zanice. “Mahalia Jackson (1911-1972).” Black Past, 20 May 2021
- Gourse, Leslie. Mahalia Jackson: Queen of Gospel Song. F. Watts, 1996.
- “Mahalia Jackson - The Queen of Gospel.” Mahalia Jackson - Queen of Gospel
- “Mahalia Jackson: Gospel Takes Flight.” National Museum of African American History and Culture, 14 Mar. 2018