History | Housing | Music

Home Histories: Mahalia Jackson’s Home

Natalie Gonzalez

Mahalia Jackson, the New Orleans-born gospel singer and civil rights activist, spent the later part of her life living in Chatham, in a spacious 1950s brick ranch house complete with seven rooms, a garage, a large chimney, and green lawns, located at 8358 South Indiana Avenue. When she moved to Chicago in 1927 at just sixteen, she lived with family and in various flats while she sang in churches up and down the South and West Sides of Chicago. After her 1947 hit, “Move On Up a Little Higher,” she gained international fame. With profits from her recordings and tours, she began investing in real estate on the South Side and looking for a home of her own. But when she began inquiring at homes with “For Sale” signs in Chatham, which was a majority-white suburb at the time, she was turned away by many homeowners—that is, until she stumbled across a white surgeon who had heard Jackson sing and was glad to sell his house to her. She bought the house in 1956 for $40,000 and was the second African-American homeowner on the block, after her neighbors, the Grants, who had moved in two years earlier.

After racial tensions subsided (tensions that included white neighbors shooting up her front windows and threatening to bomb her house) and the whites moved out, the neighborhood became the home of many of Chicago’s successful African-American business owners and bankers. All the while, Jackson worked to make her new house feel like a home. She purchased the Louis XIV furniture common in wealthy Louisiana homes and built an addition to the back of her house, complete with a white wrought iron veranda in true New Orleans style, which remains to this day. She opened her doors to many: civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr.; reporters like Edward Murrow and Studs Terkel; fellow artists, including Louis Armstrong; and her dozens of nieces and nephews.

In 1970, Jackson moved to Hyde Park. Her house stood empty for two years until she was approached by a banker by the name of Roland Burris, who was helping her finance the purchase of the Neoclassical Jewish synagogue on 50th Street and Drexel Avenue that is now the home of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition. He offered to buy the house, and the sale was made in 1972. A few days later, on January 27, 1972, Jackson passed away. In March of that year, Burris, who would go on to become Illinois Comptroller and Attorney General before filling Obama’s senate seat after the 2008 election, moved into the house with his wife Berlean. In their forty-five years in the house at 84th and Indiana, much of the interior has been remodeled, though the tile in the back of the house is from Jackson’s own renovation. However, as the interior changes, the exterior has remained largely the same—even the porch lights on the upper veranda are still original. Burris, whose air is practical (and who is perhaps understandably more than a little suspicious of reporters in his home), seems to stand a little taller as he relays this information. “When we lived in a different part of the neighborhood, and we would have people over, we would always drive by and say ‘That’s Mahalia Jackson’s house, right there,’” he adds.

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