Happy Women’s History Month! This is the 18th blog of a series of blogs called “Women’s History Month Heroes You Should Know”. This series will be a collection of my research into little-known American women who have made history in one way or another (or multiple ways!).
The focus of today’s blog is Mahalia Jackson, the American singer known as the “Queen of Gospel,” who performed at the 1963 March on Washington.
This is her story.
Gospel Singer at Age 4
According to Biography.com, Mahalia Jackson was born in 1911 in New Orleans. She first began singing at age 4 in the choir for Mount Moriah Baptist Church. As her talent grew, Jackson took on influences from blues singers like Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey. As a teenager, she had dreams to pursue nursing, so she moved to Chicago. There, she became a member of the Greater Salem Baptist Church’s choir group called the Johnson Gospel Singers.
Jackson’s Big Break
During this time, she took on several different odd jobs to help support herself. A short time after moving, she met and began working with a gospel composer named Thomas A. Dorsey. Together, they traveled around the U.S. and subsequently grew more and more popular, exposing Jackson’s talent to more and more crowds. In 1936, she met and married Isaac Hockenhull, who she would later divorce.
Highest Selling Gospel Track in History
In the 1930s, Jackson recorded several tracks, but none blew up more than her 1947 hit “Move On Up a Little Higher” which became the number one highest selling gospel track in history. Her popularity soared after that, leading to another tour around the U.S. and many radio and television appearances. In 1950, she gave a performance at Carnegie Hall in front of a racially integrated audience. This began the peak of her career in the 1950s.
Soaring Through the 1950s
In 1952, she traveled to Europe for an international tour and became massively popular in France and Norway especially. Two years later, she starred in her own gospel program on CBS. During the same year, another hit “Rusty Old Halo” soared in popularity. After that, Jackson made a notable appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. After meeting at the Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island, Jackson landed the opportunity to collaborate with Duke Ellington and his band on a new Columbia Records album they released in 1958.
Civil Rights and Legacy
By the 1960s, Jackson had become an international figure. She sang at President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration and appeared in the film Imitation of Life. She also became an active supporter and friend of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. She sang at the 1963 March on Washington and after Dr. King was assassinated, she sang at his funeral. Jackson gave her last performance in Munich, Germany in 1971 before passing from a heart attack in 1972. Read more about Mahalia Jackson here.
Read another post from the blog series “Women’s History Month Heroes You Should Know” here.