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Get On Board: The Life & Legacy of Marion Jackson Downs

In honor of Black Music Month, we've chosen to highlight the illustrious life and career of singer and concert pianist Marion Jackson Downs.

Marion Jackson Downs. Courtesy of the Nanny Jack & Co Archives.

Marion Jackson was born September 12, 1916 in Arkansas. She was the third daughter of Keiffer Albert Jackson and Dr. Lillie May Carroll Jackson, the longtime president of the Baltimore Branch of the NAACP, a pioneering civil rights leader and property owner.

Marion, her parents, and her siblings, Juanita, Virginia, and Bowen lived at 1216 Druid Hill Avenue, situated in Marble Hill, which is a part of Old West Baltimore.

The 1200 block of Druid Hill Avenue, where Marion Jackson & her family lived. Courtesy of the

Nanny Jack & Co Archives.

Jackson was a graduate of Frederick Douglass High School (Baltimore); Coppin State Teacher's College (Baltimore); Sam Houston College (Austin, Texas); Juilliard Institute (New York) and Columbia University (New York) with her Master's in Music.

She married the Rev. Karl Everette Downs, president of Huston College, and they had one daughter, Karleen. Downs was the author of the seminal book, "Meet the Negro," a collection of biographical sketches of various famous and accomplished Black Americans from the 19th and 20th centuries. Karl dedicated the book to his wife, Marion. Unfortunately, Karl E. Downs died in 1948, at the age of 36.

Karl Everette Downs' funeral 1948 funeral program. Courtesy of the Nanny Jack & Co Archives.

In 1950, Marion received a Fulbright Grant to study at the Guiseppi Verdi Conservatory of Music in Milan, Italy. This was two years after the first group of Fulbright Scholars went abroad. She received monetary gifts and well wishes from various friends, both black and white. Below are examples.

As a further example of her talent, Marion Downs received the Atkinson Foundation Award in 1953 for study in 17th Century Italian Music.

Newspaper articles described Downs as having a “soul-stirring voice” and a “glorious voice from God.” She performed all over the United States and the world: Oregon, Washington, California, Texas, New York, Arkansas, Italy, Denmark, Sweden, and Norway.

Downs hoped to use her music to inspire unity and understanding amongst the races. In a letter, she states, "I am making a dent with my program in Negro Music! It is always amazing how little people know about the Negro American and are amazed that I consider myself a Negro.”

Marion Downs produced three LPs, all of which are within the Nanny Jack & Co Archives. Two, including the one below, are signed by her.

Marion Jackson Downs-Smith passed on to glory on March 8, 1990, but her voice and her legacy will live on.

To watch the video, visit the Nanny Jack TV YouTube Channel.

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