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Mahalia Jackson Remembers Chicago

Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson (1911-1972), the grandaughter of former slaves, was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, where she learned to sing in her family's baptist church. In 1927, at the age of sixteen, Jackson migrated to Chicago where she found a job as a domestic. She joined a gospel choir and earned money as a soloist at churches and funerals. In 1937, she began recording gospel music professionally. Jackson became a strong supporter of the civil rights movement and performed at many rallies, including the 1963 March on Washington. In her in her autobiography Movin' On Up, she remembers her early years in Chicago.

I can still remember the darkness and cold of those days. The winter wind in Chicago just takes your breath away and, while I was saving up to buy a warm coat, all I had to cut that wind was sweatshirts and sweaters. Shivering in that elevated train, watching the snow blow and swirl in the streetlights and the sun just starting to come up—those were the days when I was low and lonely and afraid in Chicago. The cold and the noise seemed to beat on me and the big buildings made me feel as if I'd come to live in a penitentiary. Oftentimes, I wished I could run away back home to New Orleans. 

But after I got up to Chicago, I stuck. I didn't go back to New Orleans for fifteen years. And whatever I am today I owe to Chicago, because in Chicago the Negro found the open door.

In Chicago, our people were advancing. Not only were they making money they were active in clubs and all sorts of organizations. And I don't mean this was just organizations like the NAACP. There were all kinds of civic organizations and social clubs. The people were church people, but they were talking about different things than we ever did down South—things like getting educated and going into business. The Negro was doing more than just singing and praying, and I began to see a new world.

Source | Mahalia Jackson, with Evan McLeod Wylie, Movin' On Up (New York: Hawthorn Books, 1966), 46-49.
Creator | Mahalia Jackson
Item Type | Biography/Autobiography
Cite This document | Mahalia Jackson, “Mahalia Jackson Remembers Chicago,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed June 16, 2021,

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