Mahalia Jackson: Gospel Singer and Civil Rights Championby Montrew Dunham, Cathy Morrison
"Halie" Jackson grew up in poverty on the levees of New Orleans, hunting alligators for food along the Mississippi River with her brother Peter. But every Sunday young Mahalia sang proudly in the church choir -- the youngest member at age 5! Mahalia left school after eighth grade and worked as a maid to help support her family. However, her passion for singing her… See more details below
"Halie" Jackson grew up in poverty on the levees of New Orleans, hunting alligators for food along the Mississippi River with her brother Peter. But every Sunday young Mahalia sang proudly in the church choir -- the youngest member at age 5! Mahalia left school after eighth grade and worked as a maid to help support her family. However, her passion for singing her special brand of music known as "gospel" never wavered. Performing for royalty, presidents, and working closely with her friend Martin Luther King, the "Queen of Gospel" found special joy encouraging young African-Americans to follow their ambitions.
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Gospel Singer and Civil Rights Champion
By Montrew Dunham, Harold Underdown, Cathy Morrison
Patria Press, Inc.Copyright © 2003 Montrew Dunham
All rights reserved.
Early Days in New Orleans
One Saturday Mahalia Jackson skipped down the dirt road after her ten-year-old brother. "Peter," she cried, "wait for me."
Peter was on his way to the levee along the Mississippi River. He looked back at his five-year-old sister, playing along after him. "Hurry up, Halie," he called.
Mahalia didn't really care whether she caught up with him or not. Mostly she enjoyed skipping along barefooted in the fine dirt. Gradually the dust formed a light brown coating on her feet which looked like a pair of shoes. She laughed and called to her brother, "Wait for me, Peter. Wait to see my new shoes."
By now Peter was running up the levee. He called back to Mahalia. "What crazy talk! You don't have new shoes."
Of course, Mahalia knew that she was only pretending. She laughed and looked at her shoes of dust again. She was very happy with those shoes.
She was happy too to be away from home. The Jackson family lived in a little three-room house in a district called the Front of the Town. Their neighbors included other African-Americans and immigrants from Europe. All of them were poor and had to work hard to make a living. Mahalia Jackson was born October 26, 1911, on Water Street. Her father, John Andrew Jackson, was pastor of the Mount Moriah Baptist Church. During the week, he worked part-time as a stevedore, helping to load and unload boats at docks along the river, and part-time as a barber.
Since Mahalia's family didn't have much money, she and Peter didn't just play at the levee. While they were there, they usually gathered driftwood to burn in the kitchen stove, or caught crabs, shrimp, and little alligators to take home for their mother to cook.
Today, after Mahalia quit admiring her make-believe shoes, she ran fast to catch up with Peter on the levee. Peter already had gone on down to the edge of the river. He was peering into the water, hoping to catch some little critter to take home for their mother to cook for supper that evening.
Mahalia sat down on the levee and looked at the muddy Mississippi. The water moved slowly but steadily along, its surface shining in the sunlight.
As Mahalia sat on the levee, she could see big boats tied up at the river docks a short distance away. She wondered whether her father was there, working with other men to load and unload the boats. She wondered what they were putting into the boats or taking out of them.
Mahalia closed her eyes and listened to the sounds of the city. She could hear the loud toots of boats traveling up and down the river and from farther away the shrill whistles of railroad locomotives. In between she could hear soft gentle music coming from nearby streets. The whole city seemed to be filled with colorful and exciting sounds.
Soon Mahalia jumped to her feet and ran on down to Peter at the edge of the water. He was intently watching a small alligator stretched out in the warm sunshine. He pointed to a stick, which Mahalia promptly picked up and handed to him. He raised the stick and brought it down with a sharp crack on the alligator's head.
Peter and Mahalia now started home, with Peter carrying the little alligator. When they reached the house, Mama asked, "What are you bringing home from the river?"
"A little alligator for supper," Peter replied proudly.
That evening the Jackson family had a tasty feast of alligator tail, baked and smothered with onions and herbs. Soon after supper, Peter and Mahalia got ready for bed. The next day was Sunday, and they would have to get up early to go to church. Their father would preach there, as he did every Sunday morning.
When Mahalia climbed into bed, she went right to sleep. A couple of hours later, however, sounds and movements around her woke her up. She could hear raindrops pattering on the roof. Her mother was bringing buckets and pans to catch dribbles of water leaking through.
Mahalia peeked out to the soft light coming in from the kitchen and caught a glimpse of her father sitting by the table. She watched him as he read his big bible and made notes on a sheet of paper beside him. Proudly she realized that he was preparing his sermon to deliver at church services the next morning. Somehow just watching him and being close to him made her feel safer when everything was dark and stormy outside.
Suddenly a big cold drop of water splattered on her face, followed by another and another. She sat up and shouted, "Mama! Mama! I'm getting wet from the rain!"
Her mother came running in with a small wash-pan to catch the water. "Get up," she said calmly. "We'll have to move your bed to the other side of the room."
Mahalia hopped out to help her mother push the bed away from the leak in the roof. Then she climbed back in, hoping no more drops would fall on her. "Now go back to sleep and forget the rain," said her mother.
At first Mahalia was too excited to go to sleep again. For a while she lay listening to the steady patter of raindrops falling on the roof and the frequent splatter of water dripping into the buckets and pans. Finally the sounds lulled her to sleep.
When she woke up the next morning, the sun was shining and the rain was over. "It's time to get up, Halie," called her mother. "Hurry to get dressed so I can fix your hair before we go to church."
Mahalia dressed quickly and ran to her mother, who started to brush and braid her hair. At first she stood quietly, but soon she began to jerk and flinch. "Quit wriggling," scolded her mother, giving her a little tap on the side of her head.
"I can't help it, Mama," replied Mahalia. "You're making my braids too tight."
Just then Peter pushed open the ragged screen door and called, "I'm going on, Mama."
"No, wait," replied his mother. "Mahalia and I are ready to go, too."
When they reached the church, Papa was already standing up front by the pulpit. As usual, Mama sat in a pew near the front, with Peter and Mahalia in the pew in front of her. (Image 1.1)
Soon the church was completely filled. The room was steaming hot and flies droned in and out of the open windows. Mahalia watched her father proudly as he preached his sermon. Beads of sweat rolled down his face as he spoke and waved his arms. Everybody sat quietly and nobody seemed to mind the heat or the flies.
A choir director led the singing during the services, and one of the ladies played the church organ. The members of the congregation always stood while they sang. Mahalia stood along with the others, only she stood on the seat where she could see.
She loved to sing and knew most of the songs well from singing them over and over again. As she sang this Sunday morning, one grown-up person after another stopped singing just to listen to her. Finally she was the only person left singing in the entire church.
At the end of the services, the choir director said to Mahalia's father, "May we have Mahalia sing in the choir?" In reply, her father smiled and said, "I reckon so, if you want her, but she is a mighty little girl to sing in a choir."CHAPTER 2
A New Home
One morning when Mahalia awoke, hot sunlight was already pouring through her window. She pulled on her dress and quickly ran to the kitchen. "Mama! Mama!" she called on the way. "I'm hungry!"
"Mama didn't get up this morning," said Peter seriously. "She's sick in bed."
Mahalia stopped short and looked at her brother. He was sitting at the kitchen table, eating corn bread and molasses.
"What do you mean, Mama's sick in bed?" she asked. She could hardly believe her brother's words.
"Just what I said," answered Peter. "She was too sick to get up this morning."
Mahalia found the kitchen strange and empty without her mother. "Mama, where are you?" she called, running into her mother's room.
"I'm right here, Halie," answered her mother in a tired voice. "Don't worry, I'll soon be all right again." She lifted her head a little from the pillow and tried to smile. "Go on and get your breakfast," she said. "Peter will help you find something to eat."
Mahalia went back to the kitchen, feeling sad and worried. This was the first time she had ever had to get her own breakfast. She was no longer hungry, but finally took a piece of crumbly corn bread.
"Put the bread on a plate," scolded Peter. "You're dropping crumbs all over the floor."
Mahalia meekly put the corn bread on a plate and placed it on the table. She got out a pitcher of milk and put an empty glass beside her plate. Then she started to pour milk from the pitcher into the glass, but somehow she let the pitcher drop to the floor. Fortunately it didn't break, but it splashed milk in all directions.
Mahalia bit her lips to keep from crying. She reached down and grabbed the pitcher, trying to rescue some of the milk. "What's going on out there?" called her mother.
"Halie dropped the milk pitcher and spilled milk all over the floor," answered Peter.
"But I didn't break the pitcher, and I'll wipe up all the milk."
"Wipe up what you can," said Mama, "and I'll clean up the rest when I feel better." (Image 2.1)
Day after day the children hoped their mother would get better, but she grew steadily worse.
Papa had to go to work every day and Peter went to school. Mama's sisters came to visit and to help out. Mahalia helped these aunts all she could.
Mama's oldest brother, Uncle Porter, also came to help. He knew more about the family than anybody else, and had helped Mama and her sisters come to New Orleans to live. Mahalia asked him many questions.
Uncle Porter, Mama, and all their brothers and sisters had been born on a former slave plantation. Their father had been a sharecropper on the plantation. He had grown rice on the owner's land and received a share of the harvest for his work. All his children had worked with him to help raise the rice.
Once when Uncle Porter was visiting Mama, Mahalia asked, "Uncle Porter, how did you ever get to New Orleans?"
"That's a long story," replied Uncle Porter, taking her on his knee. "One time when I was growing up, I got mad at the plantation owner and he got mad at me. I talked mean to him and he talked mean to me."
"Did you have a fight?" asked Mahalia.
"No, but right then and there I made up my mind to leave the plantation," said Uncle Porter. "I got a job on a river boat and learned to be a cook. Then for years I cooked on river boats that traveled south to New Orleans."
"Now tell me about bringing Mama here to New Orleans," begged Mahalia.
"Well, after I got acquainted here, I went back to the plantation to get some of my sisters," replied Uncle Porter.
By now Mama, propped up in bed, was listening closely to Uncle Porter's story. Suddenly, he turned to her and asked, "Charity, do you remember how I brought you here?"
"I surely do," replied Mama. "You brought me here on a steamboat. Then you got me a job as a maid at Captain Rucker's house."
"The captain was a good friend of mine," said Uncle Porter. "I made my first trip down the Mississippi River on his steamboat."
"Yes, he really liked you," said Mama. "He used to call you his colored son."
Uncle Porter laughed. "That's right," he said. "He was white, but he took me into his house and finished raising me just like his own children."
Mahalia sat down on a little stool and listened to her mother and uncle talk about the cotton plantation and their first years in New Orleans. She tried to keep quiet because Mama seemed to enjoy talking.
As the days went on, Mama grew weaker and weaker. Everybody wanted to help her, but nobody was able to do anything to make her better. Finally one day she died.
All the relatives gathered and took Mama's body by train and boat back to the country neighborhood where she had grown up. They had services for her in the little church which she had attended as a child. Then they buried her in the little cemetery by the church.
At the cemetery, Mahalia looked curiously at her father's dark face, wet with tears. She was too young to fully understand why he and all the others were crying. Somehow she felt that when she returned home, her mother would be there just as she had always been before.
The relatives gathered at the railroad station to return to New Orleans. They talked seriously and softly and stepped over to tell Papa how sorry they felt because Mama had died. Some asked him what he planned to do about Mahalia and Peter. Mahalia felt so lonely that she climbed up on the bench in the station just to be closer to her father.
Soon the train came, and Mahalia's father picked her up and carried her into a coach. Peter and all the relatives followed and sat in seats close by. Before long the relatives began once more to talk among themselves. Mahalia listened closely because she could tell they were talking about her and Peter.
One aunt said, "I would be glad to take them to raise, but I don't have enough room."
Another aunt said, "One of us could take Peter and another one can take Mahalia. I'll be glad to take Peter, if one of you will take Mahalia."
A third aunt said, "Well, if you will take Peter, I'll be glad to take Mahalia."
Finally a fourth aunt, whom everybody called Aunt Duke, spoke up. She was older than the others and spoke with authority. "Peter and Mahalia should stay together as brother and sister," she said. "I'll take both of them."
Aunt Duke's statement settled everything. All the others, including Papa, agreed that this would be best for the children. Aunt Duke was a dark brown-skinned woman with a firm, determined look in her eyes. Often Mahalia felt as if she were looking straight through her.
Within a few days Peter and Mahalia moved in with Aunt Duke and Uncle Emanuel, wondering what their new life would be like. Both knew, however, that they had no other choice.CHAPTER 3
A Busy Day for Mahalia
"Halie! Halie!" called Aunt Duke one summer morning. "Get out of bed and come to breakfast. Nobody in this house can lie around in bed in the morning. Do your work early while it's still cool."
Mahalia sat up in bed, stretched, and sighed. Living here certainly was different from living back home with Mama. Aunt Duke wouldn't let anyone stay in bed past sunrise.
When Mahalia reached the kitchen, she took her place at the table with Peter and Uncle Emanuel. Aunt Duke, dressed in the blue uniform she wore at work, stood waiting by the stove. Quickly she placed two fried eggs and a piece of fresh hot cornbread on Mahalia's plate. Uncle Emanuel handed Mahalia a pitcher of brown molasses to pour on her cornbread. Peter was busy eating, because he was working as a yard boy during the summer.
Before Aunt Duke left for work, she gave Mahalia strict instructions on what to do during the day. "First, wash and wipe the kitchen dishes and put them away," she said. "Then scrub the kitchen floor. Be sure to clean all the corners. Afterwards go down the street and get a big bag of Spanish moss, so we can stuff a bed mattress when I get home."
After Aunt Duke left, Mahalia, Peter, and Uncle Emanuel continued to sit and talk. Peter told about the work he would have to do as a yard boy during the day. "It won't be long before school will start again," he said. "Then I won't have a chance to work during the day to earn money."
"Yes, this fall I'll be old enough to start to school," chimed in Mahalia. "I can hardly wait to learn to read."
"You're smart and I'm sure you will learn real fast," said Peter, as he left.
Uncle Emanuel remained at the table with Mahalia. "I still have time to work in the garden a while before I need to leave," he said. "How would you like to come out to help me after you finish doing the dishes?"
"Oh, good!" cried Mahalia. "That will be fun."
Carefully she scraped the sticky molasses from the plates and stacked them on the table. She placed a big tin dishpan in the sink for washing the dishes and a smaller pan for rinsing them. She poured hot water from the kettle on the stove into the dishpan and the rinsing pan. Then she reached up to the handle of the pump at the end of the sink and pumped cold water into the dishpan.
She took down a bar of homemade soap and swished it about in the water to make it sudsy. She washed the dirty dishes in the soapy water and rinsed them in the pan of hot clear water. Then she wiped each one dry with a clean cloth.
After she had put away all the dishes, she emptied both pans of water out the back door. Then she ran from the house to the garden and called, "Here I am, Uncle Emanuel, ready to help."
"Good," cried Uncle Emanuel. "You may pull weeds along the row of beans over there at the side of the garden."
Mahalia ran to one end of the row and started to work. She had learned that she should grab a weed next to the ground and try to pull it out by the roots.
As she worked, the sun rose higher, and the rays from the sun became hotter and hotter. Mahalia began to suffer from the heat, but she kept right on pulling weeds. She looked over and could see sweat rolling down Uncle Emanuel's face, but he kept working.
Excerpted from Mahalia Jackson by Montrew Dunham, Harold Underdown, Cathy Morrison. Copyright © 2003 Montrew Dunham. Excerpted by permission of Patria Press, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Meet the Author
Montrew Dunham is the author of James Whitcomb Riley, Young Poet and Langston Hughes, Young Black Poet. She lives in Downers Grove, Illinois. Cathy Morrison is the illustrator of Ignacio's Chair and the Young Patriots series. She is a member of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators and Picturebookartists.org. She lives in Denver, Colorado.
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