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Arts & Culture

Five Things You Should Know About Mahalia Jackson

Mahalia Jackson Theater
The Mahalia Jackson Theater in Louis Armstrong Park pays tribute to the Queen of Gospel. (Photo: Paul Broussard)

This year, New Orleans will commemorate Mahalia Jackson’s 107th birthday during the city’s Tricentennial. Born in New Orleans, and widely recognized for her powerful contralto voice, Mahalia Jackson was known as the “Queen of Gospel.” The Mahalia Jackson Theater, located downtown within Louis Armstrong Park, is now home to vibrant and diverse performers of all disciplines. Jackson’s legacy lives far beyond the building which pays tribute to her.

On Saturday, October 27 there will be a public wreath-laying gravesite ceremony at Providence Memorial Park and Mausoleum 8200 Airline Drive, Metairie, LA 70003 from 10:00- 11:00 a.m. On Sunday, October 28, a Commemorative Worship Service at Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church at 147 Millaudon Street from 11:00 – 12:30 p.m will be held. We’re joining the celebration by sharing five things you should know about the gospel legend.

1. Born in 1911, Mahalia Jackson, known as ‘Halie,’ grew up in the Black Pearl neighborhood in Uptown New Orleans. The gospel singer shared a shotgun home with 13 family members. She was born “Mahala” Jackson and named after her aunt. Later, she legally changed the spelling of her name and added the “i.”Some of Mahalia’s earliest influences were the sights and sounds of Uptown New Orleans, the banana steamships on the Mississippi River, acorns in Audubon Park, and jazz bands throughout the city. The star was baptized in the Mississippi River. At the age of 12, Mahalia’s aunt told her, “You going to be famous in this world and walk with kings and queens.” Jackson’s aunt was right.

2. Jackson moved to Chicago at the age of 16. She joined the Greater Salem Baptist Church choir and began touring with the Johnson Brothers, Chicago’s first professional gospel group. It was during this time that she was selected as a soloist. Like many African Americans in the South, Jackson moved during the Great Migration in search of better opportunities. However, during those first several years, like many, she was only able to find low-paying domestic work. Jackson performed for donations in storefront churches and other makeshift venues. It was during this period that Jackson vowed to only sing spiritual music – a promise she would fulfill throughout the rest of her career.

3. Jackson’s first great hit, “Moving On Up a Little Higher,” was recorded for  Apollo Records in 1945 and sold one million copies in the U.S. Previously, Jackson’s first recording, “God Gonna Separate the Wheat from the Tares,” was a success, leading to a series of other recordings.  After this record, Jackson began to tour extensively. She battled racism and segregation, especially in the South, where she earned hundreds of dollars for each show. She received violent threats from neighbors who did not want an African-American woman living on their Chicago suburban street where Jackson had purchased a home.

4. In 1950, Jackson was the first gospel singer to perform at Carnegie Hall. She began touring in Europe, where she amassed popularity abroad with her version of “Silent Night,” for example, which was one of the all-time best selling records in Denmark. By 1960, Jackson was an international gospel star. Her congregational call-and-response style, along with her powerful, soulful voice made gospel music popular globally.

5. Jackson was an early supporter of the Civil Rights Movement. Jackson’s own struggles with racism inspired her to become involved in the Civil Rights Movement. Jackson was invited to perform for the Great March, preceding Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech. Civil rights leaders reached out to Jackson to share her powerful voice and financial support with the movement. Jackson was invited by boycott leader Rev. Ralph Abernathy to sing at the first anniversary of Rosa Parks’ historic act. Although she faced danger from hecklers and Klansmen, Jackson arrived in Montgomery on a train where she was greeted by Abernathy and King, who she would later form friendships with.

*Editor’s Note: This information was sourced from www.MahaliaJackson.us/biography

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