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Jackson, Mahalia (1911-1972) | Amistad Research Center

Name: Jackson, Mahalia (1911-1972)


Historical Note:

Mahalia Jackson was widely-acclaimed as one of the greatest gospel singers of all time. In her lifetime, she rose from poverty to touring and performing gospel music throughout the world. She recorded approximately 35 albums, some of which reached gold status. She received countless awards  for her musical talent, philanthropy, and courage.

Jackson was born in October, 1911, to John A. Jackson and Charity Clark in New Orleans, Louisiana. Because her mother died when Jackson was only four years old, she was primarily raised by her two aunts in the Black Pearl area of uptown New Orleans. It was at this age that Jackson first began to sing in the Plymouth Rock Baptist Church children's choir. She was inspired by the musical style of the Sanctified church near her home, which she thought to be directly related to that of the antebellum slaves.

Jackson moved to Chicago in 1927 where she studied at Madame C.J. Walker's beauty school and worked as a domestic worker. Upon her arrival to the city, she joined the Greater Salem Baptist Church choir, where she quickly became the choir soloist. During the 1930s, she toured on a circuit performing at storefront churches. In 1935, she married Isaac Hockenhull, whom she later divorced. She later married Sigmond Galloway (only to divorce again).

She was recognized by gospel composer and publisher Professor Thomas A. Dorsey, also known as the “Father of Gospel Music,” who worked with Jackson as an accompanist, mentor and publisher of her material. By 1947, Jackson held the position of first soloist at the National Baptist Convention, renewing African American church music with influences from the folk spiritual style of singing as well as ragtime, blues and jazz. With her increasing fame, she was tempted with abandoning the religious for the secular. Decca records offered her $50,000 to play at the Village Vanguard, which she refused. She went on to make two recordings with Decca and Apollo, neither of which sold well. However, her second recording with Apollo, titled “Move On Up a Little Higher,” was the first gospel record to sell over one million copies. After winning a French Academy Award for one of her songs, she toured through Europe, receiving twenty-one curtain calls in Paris.

In light of her increasing success, Jackson left Apollo in 1954 to sign with Columbia records, which launched her into the international stage. She performed at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, where she was applauded with a standing ovation. She received the Grammy award in 1962, again in 1963. With the growing civil rights movement, Jackson accompanied Martin Luther King as a singer at many of his fundraisers and speeches. She also secretly funded many civil rights leaders that she believed were “for real.” At the 1963 March on Washington, she sang “I Been 'Buked and I Been Scorned” directly preceding King's “I Have a Dream” speech.

Jackson also used her fame to engage in many forms of philanthropy. Because she was never presented with the opportunity to gain schooling past the eighth grade, she founded the Mahalia Jackson Scholarship Fund which helped roughly fifty youths to obtain a college education. Jackson passed away at the age of sixty in 1971 due to heart failure. She was mourned all over the United States, posthumously receiving the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1972. She is buried in Providence Memorial Park in Metairie, Louisiana.

Sources: Henry Louis Jr and Evelyn Brooks-Higginbothom. African American National Biography, Vol. 4 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 454-457.
Note Author: Euan Wallace





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