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The Queen of Gospel 

She left New Orleans for good when she was 15 — to see the world as few have seen it and to hear it call her name with a sound much like awe: Mahalia. Mahalia.

But Mahalia Jackson's family name, her New Orleans name, was far less biblical, far folksier: Halie. It's what they called her at Plymouth Rock Baptist Church and McDonogh No. 24 school and Bisso's Grocery and Bar on Magazine Street and Casserta's drugstore.

Halie. In later years she might seem to be sometimes turning her back on her hometown; she could never fully and truly turn her memory on it. That much is clear from the official biography of the most famous gospel singer of all times and all places. Just Mahalia, Baby, as told to and written by Laurraine Goreau. Writer and subject had one crucial component in common: the water-haunted, head-tilted place called New Orleans, and it shows in every chapter, especially the early ones.

Here's Mahalia, the religious icon, recalling the secular soul of Magazine Street in her youth:

"But honey-y — Fridays and Saturdays, payday, the very banquettes — the sidewalks, you know — child, they jumped. Magazine had the only sidewalks around paved smooth with cement, and that street came alive with the gamblers! On their knees they'd be, shaking those dice, or throwing those cards: Pittypat — seven could play that; Cotch — seven could play that, too; Georgia Skin — that was like what you call it? Blackjack. Coon Can — I saw it all."

She was born in 1911, bent legs and nappy hair, and so dark her nickname was "Black." Her mother died when she was 5, and her father was living in another household full of other little girls who called him "Daddy." Sometimes Halie would take her cousin Celie with her to her father's home on Zimple Street to ask for some money for shoes or other incidentals. In later years, Celie would say she never saw a cent forthcoming, but Halie never discussed it. "She would take hurts and keep them, mostly," Celie said.

Oversight was provided by an aunt named Duke, who was a huge believer in God and corporal punishment. Halie loved things at Mount Moriah Baptist Church, but she loved other things, too. Things like a fat dill pickle with the insides scooped out and a peppermint stick stuffed inside. Or Magnolia milk, condensed thick and sweet. Or two-penny sno-balls.

Halie was a tomboy, plain and simple. She couldn't jump rope properly because of her crooked legs, but she was good at catching crawfish in the ditches around Audubon Park and was unafraid of any snakes that she might find there.

Then there was the baseball. She liked to play shortstop, and she had a throwing arm Cal Ripken might have envied. She loved it so much she would return Sunday after Sunday to play it, though this was a strict no-no at Mount Moriah. That meant a drubbing by Aunt Duke and a public apology to the Mount Moriah congregation before she could be readmitted. "Look like it was a disease with me," she would later say, ruefully. "I just couldn't stop." So the public apologies would have to continue.

They would continue because there was something in that church that touched Halie's heart and soul. "When they put me in church, they found the right boat," is how she would later put it. "I could stay in church all day." Especially when she got to sing jubilees like "Hand Me Down My Silver Trumpet, Gabriel." Sometimes, on Saturday nights, the church elders would let choir members tackle unholy songs. Halie's favorite was "St. Louis Blues," done in homage to Bessie Smith, who she had worshipped on neighbors' Victrolas.

By the end of her time at McDonogh 24, it was time for work. An hour's streetcar ride to get to Lakewood Country Club. Moving dirty dishes and laundry around waiting for things to get better.

Even then, Halie found ways to trick the system. Segregation kept blacks from legally riding the beautiful, beckoning flying horses at Audubon Park. But one day, she scooped up the fair-haired child she was nursemaiding and hopped on a circling horse and rode it till the calliope went quiet. Later, around Walnut Street, she bragged, "I the first colored person to ride the flying horses."

Then there was the Mardi Gras morning when Halie snuck over to Willow Street to drink in Brother Tilman's Indians and was there when a street fight ended in blood. She never attended another Carnival.

She faced her Lord at baptism, done in the waters of the Mississippi while a choir sang, "Jesus, my God, I know his name/ I wonder where is He/ Go down and search among the flowers/ Perhaps you'll find him there."

At 16, Halie was kicked out of Aunt Duke's house for the last time. It was time to seek cousins up North. "It's easy to be independent when you've got money," she said. "But when you ain't got a thing — that's the Lord's test."

It was time to meet that test. And so Halie climbed aboard an Illinois Central train headed for Chicago and opportunity.

Ahead were paths leading to four presidents, the queen of Denmark, the empress of Japan, the princess of Monaco, Carnegie Hall and the prime minister of India. And to Martin Luther King Jr. and Dinah Shore and Bing Crosby and Hollywood Studios and Grammy Awards and the respect and love of the whole wide world.

And she learned to walk all those paths here, in a city by a river.

click to enlarge LIBRARY OF CONGRESS/AMERICAN MEMORY COLLECTION
  • Library of Congress/American Memory Collection
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