Pulitzer Prize winner shares stories of ‘Delta Jewels’


The University of Southern Mississippi welcomed Alysia Steele to discuss her renowned book, “Delta Jewels: In Search of My Grandmother’s Wisdom,” on April 21.

Several of the university’s departments such as the School of Mass Communication and Journalism, Center for Black Studies and the Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage combined efforts to host the event.

“The Center for Black Studies has been committed to providing a forum for dialogue about the black experience, particularly the experiences of those in our community and region,” said Cheryl Jenkins, associate director of the Center of Black Studies and associate professor in the School of Mass Communication and Journalism.

Steele, a Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalism professor, shared in detail the journey of writing her book. The book contains a distinct collection of oral histories and photographs of African-American church mothers from the Mississippi Delta.

“This is my first time attending The University of Southern Mississippi’s campus, and I’m anxious to share my journey with the students, residents, faculty and staff,” Steele said.

Steele said her inspiration for the book came from her first experience of life in the southern region of Mississippi.

With the passion to overcome African-American stereotypes, Steele captured the lives and stories of women in the Delta, or, as she called them, “church mothers.”

With her photography and storytelling skills, Steele strived to learn more about the fire behind civil rights activists and experience of raising African- American men and women during a difficult era.

“Alysia was asked to come to the Hattiesburg Arts Council about a month ago to do her presentation,” said Alehandro Wooten, arts facilitator of the Hattiesburg Arts Council. “She blew everyone away with the telling of her book journey, and I just had to come back and listen to her speak for myself.”

Steele’s photography from the book was displayed in the Arts Center. Wooten expressed the need for more mentors and programs such as Delta Jewels.

“I think [I] would love to see the university as an entity open up to the community more,” Wooten said. “ If there was one thing that the public obtains from this lecture, I’d hope it would be the value of African-American culture in Mississippi.”

Steele ultimately wanted to present African-American women in a greater light and bring back the power of oral history.

She went to great lengths to realize her vision. Steele traveled more than 6,000 miles over a nine-month period from Oxford to the Delta and gained women’s trust to tell their stories, which she said was her greatest challenge of all.

When moving down South, Steele said every day she wishes she could call her grandmother and hear her voice one last time. Through the process of writing her book, Steele said she gained more than 50 grandmothers, which is something she will cherish forever.

“Every time an elder passes away, a library is burned down,” she said. “I don’t want anymore libraries to burn down.”

Steele said oral history and preserving the knowledge of older generations is important.

“We must take advantage of their presence now and learn as much as we can from them,” Steele said. “Before it’s too late, take photos and record their voices, because you’ll never know when you made need their advice again.”

The Steele lecture was presented in partnership with the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area and the Delta Center for Culture and Learning at Delta State University.

Director of the MDNHA and the Delta Center for Culture and Learning at Delta State University Rolando Herts introduced Steele at the event and mentioned the powerful effects of her programs.

“Delta Jewels is a valued program within and outside of our Delta community,” Herts said. “From Southern Miss to Ole Miss, we are here with the same objective which is to spark a new desire for history — our history.”

The partnership between MDNHA, the Delta Center for Culture and Learning and Steele has engaged more than 700 Delta residents and visitors through community gatherings in Clarksdale, Charleston, Indianola, Yazoo City, Ruleville and Mound Bayou, as well as Mississippi Valley State University in Itta Bena.