Delta Jewels: In Search of My Grandmother’s Wisdom 
by Alysia Burton Steele

GLORIA STEINEM - This window into the Mississippi Delta is a labor of love by Alysia Steele -- to bring us the lives of the warrior queens and rescuers known as grandmothers. To meet them is to be rescued and inspired. If they did so much, who are we not to do whatever we can? Buy the book!

Feeling the emotional pull to reconnect to her grandmother’s wisdom and her African-American heritage, award winning photojournalist, Alysia Burton Steele, embarked on a personal mission to interview, photograph, and document
Mississippi Delta women of her grandmother’s generation. Their stories and portraits are beautifully captured in Delta Jewels: In Search of My Grandmother’s Wisdom. 

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.”

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.

Mrs. Myrlie Evers, widow of
Civil Rights leader, Medgar Evers discusses her grandmother and the power of prayer.

Mrs. Lillis M. Roberts expresses pride in her activity in the NAACP, as the first Black citizen in Coffeeville, MS to register to vote.

Each experience is as different as the woman who lived it, yet all of their experiences have a common landscape, the Mississippi Delta.
Alysia Burton 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 inspiring portraits reflect the faces of love and triumph that will inspire readers to hold on to their faith and exhibit courage in the most challenging or ordinary circumstances.




The National Black Public Relations Society (NBPRS), the foremost organization for professional image makers and strategists, presents Alysia Burton Steele with an award in Washington, DC.  What an incredible honor to receive the Ofield Dukes Educator Award, presented by the esteemed Northwestern Professor Clarke Caywood.


LEONARD PITTS, JR. Delta is a place in memory–a repository of the cotton we picked, the "Whites Only" signs we obeyed, the strange fruit found hanging in the trees and bobbing in the rivers during the long, strange night of Jim Crow's America. Veteran photojournalist Alysia Burton Steele plumbs that place in memory through the words and images of over 50 ordinary mothers who made it through and emerged with tales to tell.  
—Leonard Pitts, Jr., nationally syndicated columnist and author of Freeman

RACHEL ELIZA GRIFFITHS - Alysia Burton Steele’s
Delta Jewels presents to us a visual landscape of immeasurable wealth, wisdom, and dignity. We witness truth, history, memory, and the unforgettable legacy of fifty extraordinary women who share their stories and lives with us. Steele’s photographs are hymns, diamonds, work songs, and enduring fields of the South’s strongest flowers. Their faces and voices speak clearly in the bright gospel of Steele’s intimate and spiritual testimony. Here, you will find in the honor of Steele’s portraits, again and again, the triumph of joy and survival in the church of elder women's eyes that shine back at you. 
—Rachel Eliza Griffiths, photographer, author of Mule & Pear, and recipient of the 2012 Inaugural Poetry Award by the Black Caucus of the American Library Association

SUSAN GLISSON - “It has been said that when an old person dies, a library burns to the ground. Alysia Steele's
Delta Jewels prevents the tragedy of such a monumental loss by lovingly documenting and curating the powerful stories of these amazing Mississippi women. They are the stories that our culture most often overlooks, underestimates, or denies, but exactly the ones we most need to hear in our troubled times, if we are to learn of grace and dignity and resilience and liberation.”
—Susan M. Glisson, Executive Director, William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation. 




Excerpt from Delta Jewels

Delta Jewels is a hardback book of oral histories and formal portraits of Mississippi Delta (and surrounding areas) from women church elders. It took me nine months and over 6,000 miles to interview these wise women to collect poignant highlights from their lives. They shared stories about love, loss, the importance of church, struggles during the civil rights movement - including fighting to register to vote. The book is a narrative of my life with my paternal grandmother who raised me woven into stories shared by these strong, beautiful women. And when they were done being interviewed, they allowed me to take their formal portraits.

My paternal grandmother, Mrs. Althenia Aiken Burton, died in 1994. Although I’ve taken photos since I was 15 years old, I never thought about taking Gram’s photograph or recording her voice when she was alive. When we’re young, we think we’re going to live forever and just assume our family will, too.

I missed her increasingly over the years. Time didn’t stop my brain from trying to remember, having regrets, wondering what I could have done to preserve every single thing about her, before her ways, her tone, the color of her nail polish, her mannerisms, her looks at me became a shadow of a memory.

Gram was originally from Spartanburg, South Carolina, not too far from Aiken. My great grandma Marie Aiken never talked about her upbringing, but their name, “ Aiken,” and roots made me think they were enslaved. As a Northerner, when I ventured to Mississippi to accept a teaching position in 2012, I saw cotton for the first time and began to wonder about my black family. Gram Larson, my white grandmother, is amazing at family history. That side of my family knows our history from County Meath, Ireland. This photographic journey began because I wanted to connect with my black side, the black women of my grandmother’s generation. How many picked cotton, were treated poorly, and took beatings? 

That’s what I wondered when I saw the rows of cotton growing in the Mississippi Delta and took my first photo of it in 2013. I have severe asthma and allergies, which worsened in Mississippi because all this greenery doesn’t agree with me, but even with allergies, it’s beautiful. It feels just like the cotton balls that I buy in a plastic bag at a drugstore. When I drove past the cotton fields, darn it if I didn’t start thinking about my grandmother and how much I missed her. I wondered what she would think if she saw the cotton.

I had a successful career as a newspaper photojournalist and picture editor for 12 years. I was on the Dallas Morning News photo staff that won a Pulitzer Prize for its Hurricane Katrina photographic coverage. I was a picture editor on staff and called my supervisor before the storm touched down. 

“The storm sounds worse than expected,” I told him.

“I think we should send more staff.” 

“You make a decision,” he told me, and so I started calling the staff to see who would start the trek to New Orleans. 

As I photographed vast fields of snowy flowers, I wondered if Gram would be proud of my accomplishments, what she’d think of me living in the South, if Gram would be proud of me teaching at a university. She never wanted me to be a photographer. She worried I would not find employment and make a decent living. 

“How many black girls from Harrisburg made a living in photography?” she’d ask me. 

I would do anything to hear her voice one more time. How I wish I’d captured her image and voice.

“I could honor her memory by recording stories from other grandmothers of her generation,” I said to myself. 

I began to interview and photograph grandmothers in Mississippi, my new home state. These Delta grandmothers are matriarchs to their families, like my grandmother. 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. I needed help finding the women who would help me find memories of my grandmother and honor her.

“Would you help me find black pastors who might introduce me to their ‘mothers of the church’?” 

I asked Clarksdale mayor Bill Luckett, a white man. Bill e-mailed me five names and churches and told me that Rev. Juan Self pastors the first church where Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke outside Atlanta. Going to the church where King spoke gave me chills. Rev. Self is also the architect who renovated the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. (The museum celebrated its reopening in April 2014.) 

Rev. Self sounded young when we talked on the phone, and he asked, “What is this project you are doing? How can I help you?” His youthful voice surprised me and I asked myself if he might be too young to help me find elder women. 

“I’m doing a book to honor my grandmother, the woman who raised me. She passed away 20 years ago, but I want to honor her by interviewing
other people’s grandmothers.”

( Continued... )

© 2015 All rights reserved. Book excerpt reprinted by permission of the author, Alysia Burton Steele. Do not reproduce, copy or use without the author's written permission. This excerpt is used for promotional purposes only. 

Purchase Delta Jewels: In Search of My Grandmother's Wisdom 



About the Author
Alysia Burton Steele is a journalism professor at the University of Mississippi and author of Delta Jewels: In Search of My Grandmother’s Wisdom. In 2006, she was a picture editor for The Dallas Morning News photo team that won the Pulitzer Prize in Breaking News for their Hurricane Katrina coverage. She designed the National Urban League’s 100th commemorative poem booklet written by Maya Angelou. Prior to teaching, Steele was a photojournalist, who later became a photo editor at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Articles about her book have appeared in The New York Times,, USA Today, Chicago Sun-Times and Southern Living.






Intimate Conversation with Alysia Burton Steele 

Visions Of Destiny Alysia Burton Steele


Alysia Burton Steele is a journalism professor at the University of Mississippi and author of Delta Jewels: In Search of My Grandmother’s Wisdom. In 2006, she was a picture editor for The Dallas Morning News photo team that won the Pulitzer Prize in Breaking News for their Hurricane Katrina coverage. She designed the National Urban League’s 100th commemorative poem booklet written by Maya Angelou. Prior to teaching, Steele was a photojournalist, who later became a photo editor at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Articles about her book have appeared in The New York Times,, USA Today, Chicago Sun-Times and Southern Living.

BPM: Tell us about your passion for writing. Where does it stem from?
My passion for writing comes from talking with others and sharing history. I focus on nonfiction, narrative stories. I am a journalist by trade and by passion. I've always enjoyed talking with people, so it's just a natural fit to interview people and write about life experiences. I want more African-American history, as told by our people, to be in books. I want a better collection of oral histories. Our country needs it and I am convinced that if more young people-children read our stories, they'd understand their history that's not mentioned in classrooms and in school books - and these stories should be included. 

BPM: What was your primary quest in publishing Delta Jewels: In Search of My Grandmother’s Wisdom?
I did this book,
Delta Jewels: In Search of My Grandmother's Wisdom, because I missed my grandmother, Mrs. Althenia Aiken Burton. I moved to Oxford, MS to become a journalism professor at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, MS. I saw scenery in the Mississippi Delta that reminded me of my childhood summer days at Gram's family home in Spartanburg, SC. I wanted to pick up the phone to call and tell her what I was seeing and feeling, but I couldn't. She passed away 20 years go. She raised me from the time I was 4 years old and she died when I was 24 years old. I regret never really asking her about her life growing up in SC. And I started thinking about all the time I wasted arguing with her over boys, makeup, school, chores - instead of sitting down to listen and learn more about her. When you age you reflect on life. I missed my grandmother. I missed the smell of her perfume, the way she stood in the doorway to watch her loved ones leave. I thought about the skills I had acquired as a journalist and decided I would pay it forward and interview other people's grandmothers. I wanted to take beautiful, dignified professional photographs of their grandmothers and record stories. Somehow, by the grace of God, it became a book. 

BPM: Who did you write this book for? Why?
Initially, I wrote this book for me. I was on a personal journey to understand my grandmother's contemporaries. It was never meant to be a book, but a project. I was going to self-publish to give the mothers, who agreed to be interviewed, a copy for their families. I couldn't talk to my grandmother, but I could talk to the women of her generation. I needed their wisdom in my life. I missed my sweet Gram. After The New York Times wrote about my project, I received several offers to publish a book. So, Delta Jewels was published. I am hoping this book inspires MANY younger women to talk to their female elders, male too, but I want the women to have some glory. We need it. I want more African-Americans to record histories. In my opinion, there isn't enough published in school books, so let's publish it ourselves and teach our children. 

BPM: Can you share some stories about people you met while researching this book?
I've met and have been welcomed into the lives of 54 new grandmothers and you know 19 pastors helped me. Couldn't have done it with Clarksdale Mayor Bill Luckett, who gave me pastors' cell phone numbers. I called one and we talked. That's how it started. Rev. Juan Self was the first pastor, and he also the architect who redesigned the Memphis Civil Rights Museum. I drove 6,000 miles to interview women in 27 Mississippi Delta towns. 

I even got to interview Mrs. Myrlie Evers, widow of slain civil rights leader Mr. Medgar Evers. She even shares what "their song" was and it's a precious moment for me. I've met Mrs. Tennie Self, 88, who was so angry when a car dealership refused to sell her a Cadillac, she drove almost two hours, bought one in Memphis and then drove past the dealership who refused to sell her one, honked the horn and waved at them everyday. 

I met Mrs. Leola Dillared, 103, who was thrown off a cotton plantation in Yazoo City, MS because she refused to have her little girls pick cotton. She wanted them to go to school. She was told she would be thrown off the land if she insisted because she would "ruin" the other blacks, who would want to send their children to school. She chose to be thrown off the land. All of her children have masters' degrees and one has a Ph.D. 

I have Mrs. Velma Moore, 78, mother of 15, grandmother of 145 (yes, 145!) who dragged a woman out of church because she was talking about how fine Mrs. Moore's husband was. She felt disrespected. The woman said she didn't know he was her husband, but she meant what she said, so Mrs. Moore said she meant was she was fittin' to do - and she punched the woman in the face. Stories that make you laugh, cry and beam with pride. I love each and every one of these mothers and am blessed to know them. Unfortunately four have passed away since the book came out nationwide on April 7, 2015. And this drives home the point of why we must capture our history. 

BPM: Walk us through your journey to success. How did you get to this point? 
I started Delta Jewels in summer 2013, so it's been two years. I didn't know anyone, didn't have a grant or sponsors. I saved up $50 here, $100 there - literally, for nine months, for gas money to go interview the women. They all lived two - four hours away from me, and I was teaching three classes at the time, but I drove on days I wasn't teaching or went on weekends. Thank goodness for my husband who was, and continues to be, supportive. He held it down. He was there every step of the way. He's a blessing and a man of God. I couldn't have done it without him. It was tiring, but exhilarating. I had my own private history lesson for nine months - a time I treasure. If I could do this full-time for the rest of my life, I'd do it. I'd just go and collect stories and archive them. I love it. It's my passion. 

Anyway, I reached out to one pastor, who agreed to meet me, hear what I wanted to do and liked my spirit and idea. He connected me to one mother, who connected me with another. In the end I had 19 pastors helping me, initially talking to the mothers for me, who would then talk to me. It was a domino effect. By chance I had a breakfast meeting with my assistant dean, several colleagues and a columnist for the NYT, who was intrigued by my project. Sam Freedman, the columnist, flew down, rode in the Delta with me and wrote about my project. The day it published in the NYT, I had a publisher writing to me. When God gives you a blessing, when you have a destiny, you follow it. I did what I was supposed to do. The women often thank me, but it was me they saved, so I thank them. I think I understand my Gram now. 

I'm filing my IRS paperwork to start the nonprofit called Delta Jewels Support Foundation. I am hoping to receive grants, donations to offer college scholarships to children who live in the Mississippi Delta, who attend or graduated from county and city schools only. I am also hoping to give the mothers honorariums and then I want to travel to teach oral history workshops to churches, school, universities, any organization that wants to learn how to do it. Again, I want a movement.

BPM: What has been your greatest challenge and how did you overcome it?
My greatest challenge was fear of the unknown. You have to listen to God and follow your destiny. You have to get out of your own way and do what you're supposed to do. You'll know it if you listen. I didn't have the money, had no idea what I was doing, wasn't knowledgeable about the Delta, but I did it and am so proud of myself. More importantly, I'm proud of the women for talking to a stranger, opening their hearts and homes - and memories to share. They shared so others could learn. What a blessing! The women thank me for what I'm doing for them, but I thank them. They saved ME from 20-year grief. It never goes away you know, but you just have to step out on faith. It sounds cliche, but it's true. Step out and do what you're supposed to do. Everything will work out the way it's supposed to. Don't let fear or the unknown deter you. God has you.

BPM: Do you feel as if your writing is making a positive impact on readers, women, or the world?
I'm receiving emails from people in Geneva, Rome, New Zealand, Australia, England - it's wonderful. There's so much appreciation from women all over the world who LOVE reading these stories. There are Caucasian men writing to me saying they learned so much and are having their teenage sons read the book. Imagine that! Just today, I promise you, I received this email - a woman told me she reads one story a night to her 6-year-old son. How precious is that? This books is cutting across race, gender and age and what a blessing - especially considering all the racial tension the media shows. The reality for many in our country is bleak with violence. Young adults are saying this book inspired them to find out more about their parents. It's uplifting to know that my personal project, the one I did because I miss my sweet Gram, is helping and touching lives. That's nothing but God. 

BPM: What legacy do you think this book offers future readers? 
My writing offers the following legacy to future readers....the importance of oral history. I want to start a movement of recording more oral history from our elders. They say when an elderly person dies, a library burns down. I don't want anymore libraries to burn down. We must interview our mothers, fathers, grandfathers, grandmothers. We must talk to each other more often and understand the importance of our contribution in American history, and we do that by recording more and saying thank you to our elders. I'm about to start my new book about cotton in a few weeks. More much needed oral history. I'm going to keep going. 






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