Alysia Steele

MDNHA, Delta Center partner with Delta Jewels author for Smithsonian presentation

Annyce Campbell has lived in the same house in Mound Bayou, Mississippi, for over two-thirds of her life. She raised 12 children in the home, teaching them to respect themselves and to respect their community. She raised them quietly and diligently, wanting them to have more opportunities in their lives than she had in hers.

On March 13, Campbell was recognized for her strength and commitment at a Women’s History Month and National Park Service Centennial presentation at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum in Washington, D.C. The event was a Delta Jewels Oral History Partnership program organized by the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area, The Delta Center for Culture and Learning at Delta State University, and University of Mississippi journalism professor Alysia Burton Steele, author of “Delta Jewels: In Search of My Grandmother’s Wisdom.” The book is a collection of oral histories and portraits featuring 54 African American church mothers from the Mississippi Delta. Campbell’s portrait is featured on the book’s cover.

“My grandmother used to tell me that you learn something new everyday,” said Campbell. “I passed that on to my own children. You have to learn to love life, to love living, and to be appreciative of every moment we’re given.”

For Steele, the presentation served as a reinforcement for the importance of gathering oral histories. Her family sat in the audience to hear her speak for the first time, finally under-standing what she strives to do as a journalist. Seeing the way the audience embraced Campbell was also a poignant moment.

“Mrs. Campbell was glowing all weekend,” Steele said. “I was so happy to have helped make this trip happen for her.”

The Delta Center for Culture and Learning serves as the managing entity for the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area. The MDNHA creates partnerships that promote and empower the Mississippi Delta’s people and communities to tell their stories and to celebrate their pride in the region’s unique and diverse cultural heritage.

“After a year of planning, the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area is excited to see that this collaborative effort was a success,” said Dr. Rolando Herts, director of the Delta Center and MDNHA. “This would not have been possible without a team of strategic partners. Mossi Tull, a member of the Smithsonian Anacostia board, sponsored travel for Mrs. Campbell and her family. Maggie Tyler with the National Heritage Areas program made important connections with the National Park Service. And, of course, Alysia Burton Steele’s oral histories and photography provided critical subject matter for educating audience members about the Mississippi Delta’s cultural significance. Everyone brought something to the table.”

The MDNHA is one of 49 National Heritage Areas, which are cultural heritage partnerships with the National Park Service. All areas are being encouraged to commemorate the National Park Service Centennial.

The Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area's Delta Jewels Oral History Partnership Program at Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum featured in the Spring 2016 National Heritage Areas Newsletter.

According to Tyler, National Heritage Areas program manager for the National Park Service, this year’s centennial celebrations are intended to engage the next generation of visitors, supporters and advocates, and the 49 congressionally designated Heritage Areas around the country are an integral part of the process.

“National Heritage Areas help us achieve this goal by exposing grassroots movements, heritage tourists, and community members to the benefits of having a partnership with the National Park Service in their community,” said Tyler.

The Smithsonian presentation attracted over 70 guests who were eager to hear from Steele and Campbell, as well as to learn about the MDNHA. In addition to receiving words of wisdom directly from Campbell, audience members were treated to a presentation from special guest and Mound Bayou native Reena Evers, daughter of civil rights activists Myrlie Evers-Williams and Medgar Evers. Myrlie Evers-Williams also is a Delta Jewel.

Tull, board member of the museum, was moved by the presentation. “Mrs. Evers family has endured, struggled and fought through things no family should have to face,” he said. “Having her speak with such grace, strength and aplomb was a reminder and inspiration for all of us that face difficult situations to endure as well.”

The Smithsonian presentation follows a series of successful Delta Jewels presentations which have engaged over 700 Delta residents and visitors from diverse backgrounds in several Mississippi Delta communities including Clarksdale, Cleveland, Charleston, Indianola, Itta Bena, Mound Bayou, Ruleville, Vicksburg and Yazoo City.

 

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MDNHA, Delta Jewels partnership visits the White House

Annyce Campbell of Mound Bayou, whose portrait graces the cover of "Delta Jewels: In Search of My Grandmother's Wisdom," recently enjoyed a visit to the White House.

Annyce Campbell of Mound Bayou, whose portrait graces the cover of "Delta Jewels: In Search of My Grandmother's Wisdom," recently enjoyed a visit to the White House.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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MDNHA, Delta Center announce Delta Jewels oral history partnership

Alysia Burton Steele, center, with Delta Jewels church mothers at a Delta Jewels Community Gathering in Yazoo City. Mississippi Valley State University will host the inaugural Delta Jewels Oral History Partnership program on Oct. 29 as part of the university’s Zelma T. Howard Lecture Series.

Alysia Burton Steele, center, with Delta Jewels church mothers at a Delta Jewels Community Gathering in Yazoo City. Mississippi Valley State University will host the inaugural Delta Jewels Oral History Partnership program on Oct. 29 as part of the university’s Zelma T. Howard Lecture Series.

The Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area recently forged the “Delta Jewels Oral History Partnership” with Alysia Burton Steele, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalism professor at the University of Mississippi. Steele is the author of “Delta Jewels: In Search of My Grandmother’s Wisdom,” a book of oral histories and portraits of over 50 African American church mothers from the Mississippi Delta, including civil rights icon Myrlie Evers-Williams. The book has received national media coverage, including The New York Times, NBC, National Public Radio, USA Today, Chicago Sun-Times, Southern Living, Essence and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The partnership will provide opportunities for MDNHA and The Delta Center for Culture and Learning at Delta State University to present oral history programs and workshops with regional, statewide and national organizations. The partnership is designed to make oral history education and awareness accessible to diverse communities, as well as to promote Mississippi Delta culture and history on a broader scale.

Mississippi Valley State University in Itta Bena, Miss. will be the first organization to host an oral history program under this new partnership.

“Mississippi Valley State University is honored to host the inaugural program for the Delta Jewels Oral History Partnership,” said La Shon Brooks, Chief of Staff at MVSU. “Providing a space where these culturally enriching oral histories will be shared with our students, faculty, staff and community members aligns with the public education mission of our institution.”

MVSU’s oral history program is part of the Zelma T. Howard Lecture Series sponsored by the university’s Department of English. The presentation will take place at the William W. Sutton Administration Building, Auditorium 103, on Oct. 29 at 10 a.m. The event is free and open to the public.

The MDNHA and The Delta Center partnered with Steele earlier this year to host a series of Delta Jewels community gatherings aimed at promoting cultural heritage and oral history awareness. The events took place in several Delta communities including Clarksdale, Charleston, Indianola, Yazoo City, Ruleville and Mound Bayou. The Mound Bayou gathering was hosted in conjunction with the city’s 128th anniversary celebration in July.

The gatherings attracted over 500 guests from throughout the Mississippi Delta region and the nation. Steele and the Delta Jewels also presented sessions at Delta State University’s Winning the Race conference. Continued demand for these presentations led to the creation of the Delta Jewels Oral History Partnership.

“This new partnership will help the MDNHA to fulfill various aspects of its management plan approved by the National Park Service, including oral history education, promoting Delta culture and history, and telling Delta stories,” said Dr. Rolando Herts, director of the MDNHA and The Delta Center. “The partnership also serves as a vehicle for the MDNHA to offer expanded Delta Jewels programming in the Mississippi Delta and beyond.”

“I am excited about this partnership, and I believe we will reach diverse groups of people,” said Steele. “These presentations and the book’s contents transcend race, age, class, gender and geography. I have received messages from readers in Italy, France, New Zealand and Australia. I believe everyone can relate to having a special elder in their lives and I want to inspire people – all people – to record their family history.”

To learn more about hosting a Delta Jewels oral history program or workshop, contact Herts at rherts@deltastate.edu, or call The Delta Center at 662-846-4311.

The MDNHA is a partnership between the people of the Mississippi Delta and the National Park Service. The area was designated by U.S. Congress in 2009 and is governed by a board of directors representing agencies and organizations defined in the congressional legislation. More information about the MDNHA, including the complete approved management plan, is available at www.msdeltaheritage.com.

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Delta Jewels gathering attracts hundred

The Delta Center for Culture and Learning at Delta State University and the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area served as sponsors of Alysia Burton Steele’s “Gathering of the Delta Jewels” on July 11 at the Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church in Mound Bayou.

The Delta Center and MDNHA collaborated with a diverse array of partners including FedEx, AARP-MS, the city of Mound Bayou, Historic Mound Bayou Foundation, Inc., Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church and Mound Bayou Civic Club.

 

Hundreds gathered at Mound Bayou’s Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church.

The event attracted over 300 guests from throughout the Mississippi Delta region and the nation, including Illinois, Texas and California. “Gathering of the Delta Jewels” celebrated African American church mothers featured in Steele’s book “Delta Jewels: In Search of My Grandmother’s Wisdom.”

Additionally, the event was included in the 128th Founders Day activities for Mound Bayou. The gathering was also one in a series of events sponsored by the MDNHA commemorating the National Park Service Centennial. The centennial aims to reconnect the National Park Service with communities and people, creating the next generation of diverse national park enthusiasts.

“I chose Mound Bayou specifically as the location for this gathering because the book’s title was inspired by Mound Bayou, also known as ‘the Jewel of the Delta,’” said Steele. “I also asked Reverend Andrew Hawkins, pastor of Mt. OIive Missionary Baptist Church, to help us celebrate the women featured in my book at his church because he was instrumental in referring me to several women in the book.

“It just seemed like a natural fit to celebrate during Founders’ Day weekend. I appreciate the city of Mound Bayou for including this event in the celebration. It was an uplifting experience for me, for the women and their families. I hope it was uplifting for the many community leaders who so graciously participated. I appreciate FedEx, the Delta Center for Culture and Learning and the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area for helping sponsor the festivities.”

Mound Bayou mayor Darryl Johnson hailed the gathering as a major success for the community.

“Mound Bayou’s Founders’ Day celebration is and has been about African American history and stories being told,” said Johnson. “Mound Bayou is one of the oldest African American towns in the country, so it is our duty to tell these stories for the benefit of our region and our country. “The Delta Jewels event inspires us to research and tell stories that have not really been told, stories of nationally significant figures who have connections to Mound Bayou like Isaiah T. Montgomery, Dr. T.R.M. Howard, and other unsung heroes like the Delta Jewels.

“I thank all who worked to make this Founders’ Day celebration a great one — the Delta Jewels and their families, The Delta Center, the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area, President LaForge and Delta State, and, last but not least, Alysia Burton Steele. Her work definitely is putting all of us on the right path.”

In addition to Steele and nearly 30 Delta Jewels, the program featured Keith Beauchamp, creator of the Emmy Award-nominated documentary film “The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till.” Beauchamp was joined by Fred Zollo, producer of the critically acclaimed films “Mississippi Burning” and “Ghosts of Mississippi.”

The program began with a spirited invocation from Rev Hawkins, pastor of Mount Olive, and a musical selection from the church choir.

 

Delta State President William N. LaForge.

Delta State University’s President William N. LaForge brought remarks on behalf of the university, referencing the institution’s commitment to cultural diversity and improving race relations in the Mississippi Delta.

“It was a pleasure to be a part of the celebration of Mound Bayou’s 128th birthday and the occasion of a special tribute to the ‘Delta Jewels,’ many of whom were in attendance,” said LaForge. “Delta State was proud to be a sponsor of the program through our Delta Center for Culture and Learning.”

The event also premiered a Delta Jewels traveling photography exhibit sponsored by the MDNHA. Dr. Stuart Rockoff, executive director of the Mississippi Humanities Council, offered remarks on behalf of the board of the MDNHA.

“This was an extraordinary opportunity to pay homage to these living figures of American history,” said Rockoff. “One of the reasons that the Mississippi Delta was designated a National Heritage Area by Congress is due to the fact that this is an active cultural landscape with traditions and customs that residents still practice. The Delta Jewels church mothers and their oral histories exemplify important aspects of the Delta region’s rich, living culture.”

Before introducing Steele to the standing-room-only crowd, Dr. Rolando Herts, director of The Delta Center and the MDNHA, provided an overview of the cultural heritage significance of the event to the Delta.

 

Dr. Rolando Herts (left to right) with mayor Darryl Johnson, Herman Johnson and filmmaker Keith Beauchamp.

“The Mississippi Delta has stories that continue to resonate with those who live here, as well as those who visit the Delta from other places from around the country and the world,” said Herts. “These are nationally significant Delta stories told by Delta residents who live in Delta communities, which reflects the cultural significance of the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area. The Delta Jewels’ stories also are human stories. While they are rooted in race, place, time and culture, they also transcend race, place, time and culture, because they speak to the human condition.”

After Steele’s powerful audio and visual presentation of several Delta Jewels stories, Pamela Junior, director of the Smith Robertson Museum in Jackson and MDNHA board member, facilitated a powerful Q&A session that allowed attendees to hear words of wisdom from many of the Delta Jewels who were present.

“I felt the earth shake as the ‘Jewels’ entered Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church,” said Junior. “I knew that we were in the presence of royalty, an unshakeable greatness. I remain in awe of this great author Alysia Burton Steele and these amazing women.”

Dr. Janet Morford brought a group of oral history interns from University of Illinois Laboratory High School to the event after they had participated in an educational oral history session featuring Steele at Delta State University. Morford is an alumnus of the National Endowment for the Humanities “Most Southern Place on Earth” workshop facilitated by The Delta Center. NEH workshop participants are K-12 teachers from across the country who are immersed in Delta culture and history for six days. They take what they learn back to their classrooms, essentially serving as educational and cultural ambassadors for the Mississippi Delta region.

“After our incredible workshop with Alysia Burton Steele in Clarksdale, we were delighted to attend the community celebration of the Delta Jewels sponsored by The Delta Center and other organizations in Mound Bayou,” said Morford. “Our Uni High students benefitted immensely from the chance to witness responses to Alysia’s work by her subjects, their families and others from across the Delta.

“We left inspired not only by the powerful music and the warm welcome we received, but also by the overwhelming evidence of all that can be learned by listening to people’s stories, honoring their voices and experiences, as oral historians do. We are all the more grateful to the people of the Delta, the Delta Center, the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area, the NEH, and to Uni High for giving us the chance to learn about our common humanity in these uniquely powerful ways.”

The mission of The Delta Center is to promote greater understanding of Mississippi Delta culture and history and its significance to the world through education, partnerships and community engagement. The Delta Center serves as the management entity of the MDNHA and is the home of the National Endowment for the Humanities “Most Southern Place on Earth” workshop and the International Delta Blues Project. For more information, visithttp://www.deltastate.edu/academics/delta-center-for-culture-and-learning/.

The Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area is a partnership between the people of the Mississippi Delta and the NPS. The MDNHA was designated by U.S. Congress in 2009 and is governed by a board of directors representing agencies and organizations defined in the congressional legislation. More information about the MDNHA, including the complete approved management plan, is available at http://www.msdeltaheritage.com.

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Alysia Burton Steele's Delta Jewels in the New York Times

Alysia_Burton_Steele

Here is a great New York Times article about Alysia Burton Steele and her Delta Jewels book. The Delta Center and the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area are proud to be working with this talented author and photographer. Delta Jewels is a compelling book about Mississippi Delta church mothers. 

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