Alysia Burton Steele was in college when she lost her grandmother to colon cancer. Twenty years later, she was still longing for her.
So Alysia, a professor of journalism at the University of Mississippi, decided to photograph and interview some of her grandma’s living contemporaries: southern black women who suffered brutal discrimination as children but survived to make a better life—and a better world—for their heirs.
This spring, Alysia, 45, published Delta Jewels, a collection of portraits and profiles of the women she tracked down.
Alysia Burton Steele has been taking pictures since she was 15. She was a photo editor at the Dallas Morning News before joining the faculty at the University of Mississippi.
Many of them are in their 80s, as her own grandma would be today; the eldest is 105. They all live in the small towns of the Mississippi Delta, where many of them grew up picking cotton for white plantation owners.
“These Delta grandmothers are matriarchs to their families, like my grandmother,” Alysia writes. “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.”
Alysia, whose parents divorced when she was a toddler, was mainly raised by her dad’s mother, a native of Spartanburg, S.C.
“Gram” was only 64 when she died; Alysia was 25.
Over time, Alysia found herself wishing she knew more about her grandma’s history and “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.”
Alysia chose her portrait of Mrs. Annyce P. Campbell, 90, a recent widow in Mound Bayou, Miss., as the cover image for Delta Jewels.
In Delta Jewels, Alysia celebrates more than 50 other women whose stories might otherwise have been lost.
Here are a few of them:
“My mother passed away when I was young,” says Mrs. Lillie Davis, 85, of Marks, Miss., a grandmother of five and great-grandmother of five. “It affected me emotionally, it did, but one thing about it, it gave me a determination to try to go on and do something for myself. I didn’t ever forget my mother telling me, ‘I want you to go to college. I’m going to send you to Rust College.’ She would tell me that so many times. And when I did go to Rust College and I finished at Rust … I went to my mother’s grave—sometimes I get so emotional—stood at the head of her grave and I said, ‘Mom, I went to Rust College.’ I believe my mother’s in heaven, looking down on me, and I think she’s very happy and proud that I did do what she wanted me to do.”
“A lot of things, we went through,” says Mrs. Lillian Matthews, 87, a grandmother of five who used to work at the polls in Indianola, Miss., where she lives. “In the courthouse, they had the black fountain for the water—well, it said ‘Colored’—and the one for white. Well, I just decided I wouldn’t be thirsty. I didn’t drink out of the place. I said I’ll work all day without water. We couldn’t use the same restroom. I didn’t like that. I couldn’t change it myself, but time did.”
Mrs. Katie Richardson, 88, of Tunica, Miss., a grandmother of 30, grew up picking cotton on a white-owned plantation. “The [white] agent’s two sons didn’t work, but they would pump water and bring it to the field for us [Blacks] to drink … everybody picking cotton drank out of the same barrel. My daddy caught them boys in the barrel taking a bath—in the barrel!—getting cool ’cause it was hot. They were cooling off in our drinking water. We had to drink that water. That’s all we had. I was getting 15 cents a day. They used to drop possums down in the well. We had to drink that water.”
“When the Freedom Riders came to Indianola, I was a junior, I believe, in high school,” says Mrs. Curtistene Davis, 67, a grandmother of two in Leland, Miss. “First I went out of curiosity, went to the meetings … I went there the first night and it was just jam-packed … I’m just looking at all these people. Didn’t really know what was goin’ on. I was so intrigued. I went back. My daddy was just furious because back in the day, if the plantation owner found out that you were involved in the Freedom Movement, you’d have to move from the plantation. So my daddy was just furious, he was scared to death.”