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.
Hear more from Herma in the video below!
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Celebs Tweet Their Thoughts About #JusticeForSandraBland
1. Jesse Williams
#SandraBland's treatment while attempting to travel freely on HER public roadways has been acknowledged as unlawful. She is already dead.
2. Taraji P. Henson
"SAY HER NAME #SandraBland"
3. Ava DuVernay
"'Why are you arresting me?' Because you know your rights. Because I can. Because no one'll believe you. #SandraBland"
4. Kim Kardashian
#WhatHappenedToSandraBland We need answers!!!! This is NOT ok! This is all shady! They need to own up to this & tell the truth!
5. Jussie Smollet
"A loss 4 words. #SandraBlandMatters #BlackLivesMatter 👈🏿tell me this should change once the nation shows that we do. "
6. Snoop Dogg
🙏🌹. Sandra. Rip. 🌹🌹
7. K. Michelle
R.I.P to this queen. This could've been any of us. My prayers go out to her family. #sandrabland https://instagram.com/p/5fvlO_AhCf/
8. Gabrielle Union
SAY HER NAME!!! #SandraBland #SandraBland #SandraBland #SayHerName
"We must get to the cause of #sandrabland death because this CANNOT happen again #deathorfreedom"
10. David Banner
"When will we fight back. A man's duty on earth is to protect women and children. Where are the gangsters? Preachers? We need you. Please."
11. Nicki Minaj
"Rest In Peace #SandraBland"
12. Talib Kweli
"We the people ask @LorettaLynch to investigate #SandraBland #KimberleeRandleKing RETWEET "
Signs. Signs. Signs all around us. The Message is Here. #SandraBland
14. Missy Elliot
"When I look at the #SandraBland traffic video it brings so many emotions😳😢😡😡😤!"
15. Jessie J
"God bless your soul Sandra | #sandrabland | Change needs to come |Justice needs to be served | Heart… https://instagram.com/p/5fV79mQ0aw/ "
16. Jackee Harry
"It's time y'all, it's time.." #SandraBland #BlackLivesMatter
"In memory of #SandraBland these things don't make no kinda sense "
18. Holly Robinson Peete
I really don't look forward to having ANOTHER difficult conversation w my kids tonight...but here we go again😧💔 #SandraBland #SayHerName 😢
19. Jeffrey White
Sadly, doesn't matter by whose hand she died. Unjustified arrested set the outcome in motion. The state murdered her. #JusticeForSandraBland
Sandra could have been your mother, sister, aunt, friend or if she wasn't killed the community outreach advisor A&M. #SandraBland
21. Joan Smalls
"My heart is broken. Sending my deepest condolence to her family and friends. May you find Strength, Peace and Justice. When will this stop? #EqualityForAll #RIP #Why #SayHerName
22. Gladys Knight
Sandra Bland.... #SayHerName #SandraBland
23. Cara Delevigne
Things need to change NOW #SANDRABLAND #Justice #Equality
24. Meek Mill
"Rip to that young lady that lost her life about a traffic stop! 🙏 ima make sure I pray for her and her family! 🙏😄😄😄"