When University of Mississippi journalism professor Alysia Burton Steele embarked on a journey to record oral histories from African American church women in the Mississippi Delta over three years ago, she was not sure exactly where the journey would take her.
It started at as labor of love to reconnect with her recently deceased grandmother, which led to the publishing of her critically acclaimed book “Delta Jewels: In Search of My Grandmother’s Wisdom.” The book led to an oral history partnership with the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area and The Delta Center for Culture and Learning, a partnership that culminated in an opportunity for Annyce Campbell, featured on the book cover, to visit the White House in Washington, D.C.
“When they said they wanted the woman whose portrait graces the book cover to attend the presentation, I knew that we had to get Mrs. Campbell to the White House,” said Steele. “She was so proud when President Obama was elected. So much so that the walls in her home are filled with portraits of the president and first lady.”
The visit occurred March 12 during a trip to the nation’s capital for a presentation at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum. The Smithsonian program was held in honor of Women’s History Month and the National Park Service Centennial, which is about reconnecting people with their national parks, especially those from underrepresented communities. The White House is part of President’s Park, a National Park Service site.
Campbell still lives in the Mound Bayou, Mississippi home where she and her husband of 69 years raised their nine children. The election of the first African American President of the United States was something she never imagined would happen in her lifetime. Her goal was to enable her family to have opportunities she never enjoyed. She was thrilled that she and her daughters would get a chance to experience the visit together.
“That moment — visiting the White House with my daughters — was more than my mind could conceive,” said Campbell. “I held my ID in my hand for so long. How many more stops do I get to make? Where do we get to go next? Who do we get to meet? I can’t fully express the joy of that trip. Everyone should have an opportunity like this in their lifetime.”
The trip to the White House was not part of the original itinerary. It wasn’t until Campbell landed in D.C. that the tour was finalized.
Annyce Campbell, seated, poses in the White House with her daughters Alma Campbell and Emily Harris, as well as Dr. Rolando Herts, director of the Delta Center for Culture and Learning.
Mossi Tull, board member for the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum, sponsored Campbell’s travel to Washington.
“My grandparents were from Kentwood, Louisiana, and I spent many summers down there,” he said. “Visiting with Mrs. Campbell and her daughters brought back so many wonderful memories for me, and reminded me of the importance of my own family. We laughed. We smiled. We celebrated the fact that we were all together in that moment. It was truly a wonderful afternoon.”
Through the efforts of Maggie Tyler, Southeast Region National Heritage Areas program manager, Campbell was able to participate in the tour with her daughters Emily Harris and Alma Campbell, as well as Dr. Rolando Herts, director of The Delta Center for Culture and Learning at Delta State.
“I was so excited to walk up to the White House gates with them and give Mrs. Campbell her tour ticket and introduce her to the NPS ranger working that day,” said Tyler. “Everyone was so gracious to Mrs. Campbell and her daughters and they were all beaming from ear to ear. It’s these small moments that make me proud to work for the National Park Service.”
The Delta Center serves as the managing entity of the MDNHA. The mission of The Delta Center is to promote greater understanding of the Mississippi Delta’s history and culture through education, partnerships, and community engagement. According to Herts, serendipitous moments like this are precisely why their efforts are so important.
“This White House visit is significant on so many levels,” said Herts. “It represents a lifelong dream come true for Mrs. Campbell, her family and her community. It represents the kind of powerful connections that are being made between people and national parks, which is what the National Park Service Centennial is all about. And it represents a story that will be told again and again, which is part of a rich oral history tradition that we are celebrating and honoring with Alysia Burton Steele.”
Steele spent the early years of her career as a photojournalist and editor. She never viewed herself as an oral historian, but through the Delta Jewels project has discovered the craft to be her new passion. Working with the MDNHA and The Delta Center, Steele has been empowered to share the importance of telling stories that have often been left untold and to demonstrate the positive effect conversations can have on communities.
“It’s pretty simple, really, why this important. We’re not going to learn and grow if we don’t talk to each other,” said Steele.