Professor Alysia Burton Steele got an illuminating lesson in the search to find out more about what life was like for her grandmother.
The conditions that prompted the Civil Rights movement are not that far in our past, as Alysia found out while gathering information for her book “Jewels in the Delta.” She was inspired to write it after her grandmother’s passing about 20 years ago, when she pondered what she really knew about her grandmother’s life growing up in South Carolina. Surely, Alysia’s grandmother had faced far more racism and discrimination than she’d ever confronted herself or could ever imagine.
It wasn’t until 2012 that the project began to take shape right around the time that Aysia and her husband moved to Mississippi.
Looking out at a cotton field during the drive to their new home, she and her husband had a brief exchange about how mental and emotional toll working those same field under deplorable conditions had had on slaves and share croppers. That’s when the professor, who had also trained to be photographer, silently asked herself what he grandmother might think of her moving back to the deep south.
Since her grandmother was no longer around to answer those questions, Alysia tracked down a number of different church mothers to get their thoughts and memories of life in the south.
She spoke to about 50 different, amassing 3,000 images and about 240 hours of audio for “Jewels in the Delta.” At the end, she was overwhelmed by what they had told her of their experiences struggling for equality and decent treatment as human beings.
“I knew there were hard times,” Alysia told the New York Times during a recent chat. “But I did not understand it. Just to hear the things they went through. That blacks couldn’t try on shoes in stores. That you couldn’t go to school if there was cotton to pick. The stories made me cry. They put a face on history for me. I felt like I got my private history lesson.”
Among the women she spoke with as Medgar Evers’ widow, Myrlie Evers-Williams, who recalled refusing to take hand-me-downs (like a fur coat) from the white people who employed her grandmother. Myrile preferred to wear homemade garments stitched by the people she knew and loved best as a show of independence.
Alysia also spoke to a retired school teacher named Herma Mims Floyd, 74, for Jewels in the Delta. Miss Herma wasn’t keen on the idea at first, though. “I said: ‘What kind of book you talking about? I don’t want to be in any book,’” she told the Times. “I just felt like it wasn’t for me. But when she came and said, ‘Just tell me your life history,’ I can answer that. And it’s one of the best things I ever did.”
Herma, who is the first woman you’ll hear from in the video below, recalled having to go back to work in the cotton field so that her son could take a college chemistry class. The retired teacher and her husband, a school principal, made a lot of sacrifices for their family. And it paid off because their son went on to become a Ph.D.