Born as Mahala Jackson and nicknamed "Halie", Jackson grew up in the Black Pearl section of the Carrollton neighborhood of Uptown New Orleans, Louisiana. The three-room dwelling on Pitt Street housed thirteen people and a dog. This included Little Mahala (named after her aunt, Mahala Clark-Paul whom the family called Aunt Duke), her brother Roosevelt Hunter, whom they called Peter, and her mother Charity Clark, who worked as both a maid and a laundress. Several aunts and cousins lived in the house as well. Aunt Mahala was given the nickname "Duke" after proving herself the undisputed "boss" of the family. The extended family (the Clarks) consisted of her mother's siblings – Isabell, Mahala, Boston, Porterfield, Hannah, Alice, Rhoda, Bessie, their children, grandchildren and patriarch Rev. Paul Clark, a former slave. Mahalia's father, John A. Jackson, Sr. was a stevedore (dockworker) and a barber who later became a Baptist minister. He fathered four other children besides Mahalia – Wilmon (older) and then Yvonne, Pearl and Johnny, Jr. (by his marriage shortly after Halie's birth). Her father's sister, Jeanette Jackson-Burnett, and husband, Josie, were vaudeville entertainers.
When she was born Halie suffered from genu varum, or "bowed legs". The doctors wanted to perform surgery by breaking Halie's legs, but one of the resident aunts opposed it. Halie's mother would rub her legs down with greasy dishwater. The condition never stopped young Halie from performing her dance steps for the white woman her mother and Aunt Bell cleaned house for.
Mahalia was five when her mother, Charity, died, leaving her family to decide who would raise Halie and her brother. Aunt Duke assumed this responsibility, and the children were forced to work from sunup to sundown. Aunt Duke would always inspect the house using the "white glove" method. If the house was not cleaned properly, Halie was beaten. If one of the other relatives was unable to do their chores, or clean at their job, Halie or one of her cousins was expected to perform that particular task. School was hardly an option. Halie loved to sing and church is where she loved to sing the most. Halie’s Aunt Bell told her that one day she would sing in front of royalty, a prediction that would eventually come true. Mahalia Jackson began her singing career at the local Mount Mariah Baptist Church. She was baptized in Mississippi by Mt. Mariah's pastor, the Rev. E. D. Lawrence, then went back to the church to "receive the right hand of fellowship."
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