Meet the grandmas of the Mississippi Delta

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: