Mahalia Jackson: An Amazing Legend of Grace and Strength

Throughout this year as we celebrate our 10th anniversary, we will honor a series of remarkable women. For Women’s History Month, we find it fitting to start with civil rights activist, philanthropist, and queen of gospel, Mahalia Jackson. Born in New Orleans in 1911 to Johnny Jackson, a Baptist minister who traveled often, and Charity Clark, who passed away when Ms. Jackson was five years old. Because of this, she was raised by Charity’s sisters, all women of deep faith. Ms. Jackson’s music career, guided by her religious upbringing, started when she began singing at Mt. Mariah Baptist Church in New Orleans. Living in a city known for its prolific music scene, Ms. Jackson was influenced by the mélange of jazz and blues. She was drawn to the gospel genre and moved to Chicago in 1927, during the great migration (1910 to 1970) when many Black people moved to northern cities from southern rural areas. Eventually she established herself as a gospel singer by joining the Johnson Gospel Singers.

Once in Chicago, her powerful voice was well received in churches; however, like many Black girls and women, she was often criticized for how she looked. Church leaders and parishioners found her body and movements while singing objectionable. They told her to restrain her movements. They gave her a robe to cover her curvaceous body every time she performed. She was also instructed by a professional Black voice coach to sing in a more mainstream way to appeal not just to Black people but to white people as well.

The objections of the pastors and voice coach reflect how Black women’s bodies were and are still under constant assault and criticism.

In 1947, Ms. Jackson signed with Apollo Records and recorded the song “Move On Up a Little Higher,” which at the time was the most successful gospel recording in history. She went on to become an international sensation, winning French awards and recording one of the bestselling singles in the history of Norway. Ms. Jackson received multiple Grammy Awards, including the Lifetime Achievement Award in 1972, the same year she died. She was posthumously inducted into both the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 1978 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997.

Being a philanthropist was at the core of her being. Though she grew up in poverty, Ms. Jackson’s music career brought her great fame and wealth which she used to donate to soup kitchens and Black churches and finance the education of over fifty Black children. She was deeply engaged in the civil rights movement and was a major donor to that cause. Ms. Jackson also used her wealth to support racial and social justice causes. Bithiah Carter from New England Blacks In Philanthropy writes,

“The power of Black philanthropy is not new but has a long legacy in a country that did not completely accept Blacks as full citizens. Mahalia Jackson demonstrated the power of change through her philanthropic giving of her time, talent, treasure, ties, and testimony. When she told Dr. Martin Luther King to ‘Tell them about the Dream, Martin,’ she reshaped the voice of our nation. Whether it was scholarships, using her fame of selling out Carnegie Hall or raising bail money for jailed civil rights activists, Harry Belafonte summed it up best: She was ‘[t]he single most powerful Black woman in the United States, the woman power for the grass roots,’ he said of Jackson, adding there was not ‘a single field hand, a single Black worker, a single Black intellectual who did not respond to her civil rights message.’”

A lesser-known fact about Mahalia Jackson that we would like to emphasize was her struggle with uterine fibroids. Uterine fibroids are noncancerous tumors made up of muscle tissue in and around the uterus that can be painful and lead to serious health complications including infertility. Before a tour in Europe, Ms. Jackson began having spasms that affected her ability to breathe. Attributing it to poor diet, she passed it off as a onetime occurrence. However, these spasms returned. The physician she went to see blamed her health issues on her weight and diet and asked her to return to monitor her prolonged menstrual bleeding. Like Ms. Jackson, Black women seeking medical care are sometimes blamed for their own health problems as part of a deeply-rooted historical pattern. This kind of dismissive blaming and criticism of Ms. Jackson discounted her concerns and showed the indifference of some health practitioners toward the suffering of Black women. This can lead to minimizing serious medical problems and leave Black women ill-equipped to deal with their illnesses.

After returning to the doctor, Ms. Jackson was told that she needed a hysterectomy and that her breathing spasms were asthma. She went to a university hospital for a second opinion. After multiple tests and x-rays, the doctors discovered nodules in her lungs, which indicated sarcoidosis. This autoimmune disease targets the lungs and lymph nodes and disproportionately affects Black people, especially women. Learn more about sarcoidosis here. They also found multiple uterine fibroids. She was told that the treatment for the fibroids was a full hysterectomy. A few weeks later, Ms. Jackson underwent surgery to remove her uterus. This made it impossible for her to have biological children—which was a dream of hers. But she did raise a child as her own, and she was like a mother to many through her financial and community support.

According to the CDC, Black women have a much greater risk of uterine fibroids than their white counterparts, and they have a seventy to eighty percent chance of developing fibroids by the time they reach their late forties. Their fibroids tend to be bigger in size and more numerous and can cause chronic pain, anemia, infertility, excessive bleeding, and other health complications.

In addition, research has shown that Black women are more likely to have hysterectomies, the removal of the uterus, or myomectomies, the removal of fibroids instead of the uterus. Besides these two common interventions there are other medically-recognized fibroid treatments available. For more information, visit RSP’s page on Uterine Fibroids.

We celebrate Ms. Jackson for her lifetime of achievement, advocacy, activism, philanthropy, commitment to civil rights, as well as her fearlessness in the face of obstacles. By drawing attention to her life and her experience with uterine fibroids and her resulting hysterectomy, we hope more Black women will feel inspired to learn more about their reproductive health.

The story of Ms. Jackson shows that medical institutions need to be held accountable for the blaming and minimizing of the health concerns of Black women. These institutions themselves bear the responsibility to address the historical and structural racism in healthcare settings.

We will continue to engage in conversations that strive to uplift Black women in a way that addresses longstanding health and racial disparities. In keeping with the community spirit that Mahalia Jackson exemplified, we will continue to seek solutions to the persistent inequities in Black women’s reproductive and overall health. We’d like to end by sharing a quote from Ms. Jackson. She said, “Blues are the songs of despair, but gospel songs are the songs of hope,” and Mahalia Jackson is indeed a symbol of strength, grace, and hope for us.

With that, we leave off with her famous rendition of “Amazing Grace.”

To learn more about fibroids, infertility, and other diseases of the female reproductive tract, please see our Reproductive Health Conditions page.

REFERENCES/RESOURCES:

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2018, April 27). Common reproductive health concerns for women. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved March 15, 2022, from https://www.cdc.gov/reproductivehealth/womensrh/healthconcerns.html
  • Goreau, Laurraine. Just Mahalia, Baby: The Mahalia Jackson Story. Pelican Publishing Company, 1984.
  • Stewart, Elizabeth A et al. “The burden of uterine fibroids for African-American women: results of a national survey.” Journal of women's health (2002) vol. 22,10 (2013): 807-16. doi:10.1089/jwh.2013.4334

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