It’s Mother’s Day weekend, and many of us may feel the keen absence of the women who meant the most to us.
How many times have you wished you could turn back the hands of time and have one more conversation with one of the most influential women of your life? Maybe have notes of memorable anecdotes they shared?
This was one of Alysia Steele’s biggest regrets concerning her paternal grandmother, Althenia A. Burton, who died 20 years ago. Since then, the memory of her grandmother has stayed with Steele, never fading, and ultimately culminating in the conception of her current project, a book proposal, “Jewels in the Delta,” that has gained interest from publishers.
“I have a huge sense of regret that as a trained journalist I never had the foresight to get her story and I’ll never hear her voice again, and I can’t even tell you how much that hurts me,” Steele tells The Root.
Steele has interviewed about 47 women and is conducting the last of what will be a total of 50 interviews in the coming days. The project has taken her approximately 11 months to complete and countless hours of recording, transcribing, coaxing and traveling. It’s been hard work, to be sure, but to Steele the end goal has been more than worth it.
“How many of us stop and talk to our grandparents to get to their stories? To really ask them the questions that are hard?” she adds.
“[These women] deserve some recognition,” she says. “You think about the big stories that went nationwide and abroad, but there are challenges that everyday people faced that aren’t being told … and I wanted to pay respect to those women who held it down.”
Steele grew up with her grandmother living just a few doors down from her and her parents in Pennsylvania and described herself as her grandmother’s “mini-me.”
“When I was 2, I was so close to my grandmother, she’d buy me little matching outfits—the hat, the coat, the purse—and when I would get mad at my mom … she said I used to say ‘Hat, coat, purse,’ which meant give me my hat, my coat and my purse because I’m walking up to Grandma’s house,” Steele recalls. “And [my mom] would stand on the porch and watch me and call my grandmother and say ‘Here she comes.’”
So Steele set about looking for older church mothers, much like her grandmother, in her adopted hometown of Oxford, Miss., where she teaches at the University of Mississippi, to uncover the stories of these “jewels,” and share them with the world in text and black-and-white photos.
“There are so many churches down here, little white churches on the side of the road, and I started wondering about those churches and who goes to them,” Steele says. “I just started thinking about my grandmother and what she’d think about me living in Mississippi, a state with such a harsh history of race … I guess I just wanted to bring a part of her back to me.”
Approaching these dignified ladies wasn’t an easy task. People in the Delta aren’t known for being particularly welcoming to strangers, Steele acknowledged, laughing. She had to put in a lot of time, building relationships with various pastors of different churches, who first interviewed her and sought out her intentions with these women. Then she had to approach the women several times, coaxing them, before they finally agreed to share their remarkable stories with her.
There’s Leola Dillard, the 102-year-old gem who refused to let her daughters pick cotton while she worked on a plantation in Yazoo City. Dillard was told that if her children went to school, she would have to leave the land because she would “ruin all his other blacks because they would want to send their children to school too.”
Dillard chose to leave. Now all her girls have master’s degrees and one obtained her Ph.D.
Lillie Jackson was married to Champ Jackson. That may mean nothing at first … but Champ Jackson was the funeral home director who prepared Emmett Till’s body in 1955.
In an excerpt from Steele’s book proposal, Virginia Hower, 93, shared how she “felt dirty” because of her ability to pass for white in a segregated society.
It was horror. You felt bad because you couldn’t be with your grandmother or your grandfather. You just accepted it. I couldn’t be with them because they were darker. Sometimes you felt bad because you could ride in a clean coach and just to think that your grandmother couldn’t kiss you as you stepped off the train. But they accepted it, so why not enjoy the clean train? And then when I got down on the streets, we all kiss and carry on. Those was happy moments. And then you got to thinkin’ how foolish this life is, how foolish. Then you got to thinkin’ about it and say take advantage of it and a lot of people down here in Clarksdale, they went to Chicago in ’41 and never revealed they were colored.
So many fascinating stories from unassuming women who had nothing but love for their respective husbands and children and who never really spoke about the troubles and trials they had endured.
As Velma Moore explained to Steele:
If you gonna marry somebody, you supposed to marry them—you said ’til death do us apart. You hang there. It’s gonna be dark days, light days, but you supposed to hang there until death do you apart. And I always say, Lord, I want one husband, I want all of my children to be by that one man and God fixed it so. We got 15 heads, that’s the first man I married, never been married no more and never will. No, I will not. And I got 15 children by that one man and I thank God. And I did just like He say. We was not divorced. I’m still Mrs. Moore. I be Mrs. Moore until I’m dead and gone and I’ll still be Mrs. Moore.
Lillie Jackson always put her children before all else:
A mother’s love? She tried to teach her children the right way to go. Bring ‘em up in church and you love them and you try to do the best you can, what a mother supposed to do. I loved my kids up until now. Don’t nothin’ come before my kids. My kids always come first. If I had food and I didn’t have enough, I would let them eat first. If they left anything, I’d eat. If they didn’t, I would just wait until next time.
For Steele, 44, it was a joy being able to give these elderly women a voice, to show a side of them that few people—sometimes not even their families—knew.
“I’m very honored that women I don’t know have allowed me to come into their lives and just tell a portion of their stories and it’s very gratifying because the grandchildren or the daughters sit in and listen and often say ‘I didn’t know about that,’ and so there’s a bond that trickles down to them that makes this all the more worthwhile, and I know that I’ve done something good when the mothers get emotional or cry when I read their words back to them and so that’s a wonderful feeling that they can appreciate what they said,” Steele tells The Root.
As for the poignant photos that will illustrate this proposed book, Steele hopes that they will help anyone from any background relate to any single story.
“I hope that people of all races and backgrounds will find it interesting, these stories, because they think they touch across several aspects of humanity: falling in love, working under hard conditions, new points of education, having self-esteem,” Steele says. “So I think there’s a story for everybody.”
Breanna Edwards is a newswriter at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.