Mahalia Jackson, the “Queen of Gospel Song,” was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, on October 26, 1911. She was the daughter of Charity Clark, a laundress and maid, and Johnny Jackson, a Baptist preacher, barber, and longshoreman. Her mother died when she was five years old and she was then brought up by her extended family of one brother, six aunts, and several half-brothers and sisters—the children of her father. Jackson grew up singing gospel music at the Plymouth Rock Baptist Church where her father preached. She relocated to Chicago in 1927. Although her ambition was to become a nurse, she worked as a laundress and studied beauty culture at Madame C. J. Walker’s External and the Scott Institute of Beauty Culture. With that training, Jackson began the first of her several business ventures and opened a beauty shop.
Within months of her arrival in Chicago she was a lead singer with the choir at the Greater Salem Baptist Church, where she joined her pastor’s three sons in their group, the Johnson Brothers.
In 1936 Jackson married Isaac Hockenhull, a college-educated entrepreneur. He encouraged her business aspirations but realized that her musical talent was a bigger source of income. “Ike,” as he was called, persuaded Jackson to audition for the Works Projects Administration (WPA) Federal Theatre Broadway production of Hot Mikado by Gilbert and Sullivan.
The beauty of her contralto voice and the increasing popularity of gospel music during the Depression brought Jackson success. Her first recording, “God’s Gonna Separate the Wheat from the Tares” and the Baptist hymn “Keep Me Every Day,” was made for Decca in May 1937. Jackson changed record labels and signed with Columbia in 1954.
Jackson resisted secular music saying, “When you sing gospel you have a feeling there is a cure for what’s wrong. But when you are through with the blues, you’ve got nothing to rest on.” Although she declined to sing anything but gospel, Jackson listened to and was heavily influenced by ragtime, jazz, and blues artists including Bessie Smith, Maime Smith, Ma Rainey, and Ida Cox.
Jackson sang regularly at Chicago’s South Side Greater Baptist Church and often collaborated with Thomas Dorsey, the “Father of Gospel Music.” Originally a blues musician, Dorsey began to write sacred music early in the century, using the sounds and rhythms of blues and jazz. Over the years, gospel made a lasting impact on blues and soul artists, including Aretha Franklin, who listened to Mahalia Jackson sing at Reverend C. L. Franklin’s (Aretha’s father) New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit.
Jackson hosted a radio program in Chicago for CBS, and often her powerful voice concluded the day’s local television broadcast. She recorded with Duke Ellington, packed Carnegie Hall on a number of occasions, and sang for four presidents.
Jackson lent her prestige to the civil rights movement and became a prominent figure in the struggle. In 1955, she supported the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott led by Dr. Martin Luther King, and, at King’s request, she sang “I’ve Been ‘Buked and I Been Scorned” just before he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech during the 1963 March on Washington.
Jackson was sixty-years-old years old when she died in the Chicago suburb of Evergreen Park, Illinois. At her funeral, Coretta Scott King described the singer as “black…proud…[and] beautiful.” She recalled her husband saying of Jackson, “A voice like this comes, not once in a century, but once in a millennium.”
The Library of Congress Digital Collections offer more information on gospel and the times in which Mahalia Jackson lived.