Author and photojournalist Alysia Burton Steele spent nine months and traveled 2000 miles to capture the stories in her latest book, “Delta Jewels: In Search of My Grandmother’s Wisdom.” In September, Steele shared those stories, a written collection of oral histories of the Mississippi Delta’s beloved “church mothers,” with a packed audience at the College’s Media Innovation Center.
Steele set out on her journey with a desire to feel more connected to her own grandmother by meeting some of her contemporaries, listening to them and sharing their stories.
Steele’s presentation was an incredible journey of civil rights, humor, love and loss, as told through the eyes of the women in her book.
“Their voices are much more powerful than mine,” said Steele of the women she interviewed. “That’s the power of audio. You can hear these women tell their stories. Their families can have a piece of them when they have gone. It’s a powerful tool and every single one of you should use it.”
Steele’s ability to connect with her subjects allowed her to not only share their stories, but also to connect with the people in the audience during her presentation. She encouraged attendees to listen to the stories of their elders. She said there are stories to be heard in every community, and she stressed the importance of respecting their wisdom and the lessons they have to offer.
“Journalists and photographers usually like to stay behind the camera; but to be able to share the Mississippi Delta’s oral histories with West Virginia University is an honor,” said Steele. “For the journalism students out there, I want to tell you the importance of following your gut and following your passion. You’ve got to like what you do. You spend so much time at work that it has to matter.”
Copies of “Delta Jewels” were available for purchase at the event, and Steele remained after her presentation to discuss her work and sign each copy of her book. Some of Steele’s photos form the book are also on display at the Center and will remain there through December.
Steele spent more than 12 years as a photojournalist at The Columbus Dispatch and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution where she worked as a picture editor and deputy director of photo. In 2006, she served as one of the picture editors on The Dallas Morning Star team that won the Pulitzer Prize in Breaking News for their Hurricane Katrina coverage.
Currently, Steele is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Mississippi’s Meek School of Journalism and New Media in Oxford, Mississippi.