What started as a search into her past, ended with award winning photojournalist Alysia Burton Steele discovering a network of women who have maintained an unheralded chapter of Black history. “Delta Jewels: In Search of My Grandmother’s Wisdom (Center Street/Hachette Book Group, $28)” is a book of oral histories and formal portraits of over 50 Mississippi Delta women church elders. These living witnesses to history highlight poignant civil rights stories, particularly voting rights battles.
Feeling the emotional pull to reconnect to her grandmother’s wisdom and her African-American heritage, Steele embarked on a personal mission to interview, photograph and document Mississippi Delta women of her grandmother’s generation. With the help of local pastors, Steele recorded these Black woman and their faith.
“It started out as a personal project inspired by the memory of my grandmother who raised me,” explained Steele. “I drove over 6,000 miles and collected oral histories from women all across the Mississippi Delta. I’ve spent countless hours driving, talking to these strong, beautiful women and I don’t even know how many hours transcribing this body of work.”
Each experience is as different as the woman who lived it, yet all of their experiences have a common landscape, the Mississippi Delta. Mrs. Tennie S. Self shares her experience of buying a new Cadillac and her right to have “Mrs.” by her name in the telephone book: “I just speak and if I have to die for what I believe in, then so be it.” Or, Mrs. Lillie B. Jackson, whose husband prepared Emmett Till’s body for his funeral, shares family stories and how she does the best that she can as a mother. Or, Mrs. Myrlie Evers, widow of civil rights leader, Medgar Evers, who discusses her grandmother and the power of prayer. Or, Mrs. Lillis M. Roberts who expresses pride in her activity in the NAACP, as the first Black citizen in Coffeeville, Miss. to register to vote.
Steele complements the rich narrative with her poignant photographs illuminating her appreciation of each of the precious “Jewels,” who have endured inequality, injustice and heart-wrenching tragedy. These portraits reflect the faces of a community of faith and courage in the most challenging or ordinary circumstances.
“These Delta grandmothers are matriarchs to their families, like my grandmother,” notes Steele. “ They are ordinary women, like Gram, who have lived extraordinary lives under the harshest conditions of the Jim Crow era and were on the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement. They are church women.”
Each woman is a unique treasure-child, daughter, sister, wife, mother or grandmother — all “Jewels of the Delta.”
To watch and listen to some of the women featured in the book, visit alysiaburton.com.