Give it up for the Church Mothers of the Delta

I like it when passion and culture are fused, and that's why I want to give a shout-out to the Church Mothers in the Mississippi Delta and to University of Mississippi photojournalism professor Alysia Burton Steele. blog alysia

In the black Baptist community of much of the South, the church mother is the inspirational leader to young women in the congregation, comforter and counselor to all congregants at all times, organizer of church programs and an adviser to the pastor. It is the head pastor that selects the distinguished member to serve in the role. She may be asked to weigh in on church appointments and operations and always is a respected member of the general community. The time-honored position dates back to early 20th century, and often is a slot that faithful churchgoing women naturally evolve to. To preserve the rich legacy, the professor from Ole Miss has come up with a 21st century approach using an old-fashioned technique -- the art of talk.

For more than half a year, Alysia, a friend and former Dallas Morning News colleague, has spent countless amounts of her own dime and weekend time pursuing and documenting the stories of these women. Her project in progress, Jewels of the Delta, chronicles in beautiful black and white photography and melodic heart-to-heart audio the vibrant lives of 50 women known throughout the Delta for their directness, fortitude, beauty and sense of place in history. The grace through the emotional and sometimes witty conversation of the women, reverberate as they sit with Alysia for two or more hours at a time regaling her with their revealing tales of church life and beyond. With all due respect, the church mothers featured are authentic Drama Queens.

They remind Alysia of her grandmother, she told me in a recent telephone interview. That made talking to them easier. Though winning their trust took some doing. Without the help and coaxing of the pastor and very willing family members, she's sure many of her subjects would have turned her away. They guard their privacy, especially with strangers, Alysia explained. "It was interesting to see how their grandchildren got it. They so wanted to preserve their elder's legacy."

In a way,  Alysia is preserving her Grandmother Althenia Burton's legacy, too. Alysia, who was born in Harrisburg, PA  and is biracial, was raised by her black grandmother since age 3 . Her grandmother died unexpectedly before Alysia graduated from college, and like so many of us that have experienced the sudden death of someone close, Alysia lives with "If Onlys." She wishes she had more pictures, more videos, recordings of her grandmother's voice.

When the working journalist-turned-academic arrived fresh on the historic campus in Oxford last year, she had not spent much time in Mississippi. The region and life there brought back memories of her upbringing and that led her to her project. Her Presbyterian grandmother and Baptist great-grandmother were strict church ladies, and she learned a lot about what that means from them, she said.

Many of her students first year had had no exposure to the Delta region. She wanted them to learn photography and a sense of history. She included in their coursework the option to go on Saturday field trips to the Delta to shoot pictures. For more than a year, she and groups of students have been loading camera equipment and themselves in cars and traveling to the area. "There's so much to explore here. Many of my students have never seen or heard of the Delta.''

Almost every weekend, they schlep through the rural cotton country feasting on iconic images of nature and people and lifestyle during the day, and at dusk on the nightlife in historic Clarksdale, a Delta hub, featuring the renowned blues spot Ground Zero Blues Club, made even popular by its owner actor Morgan Freeman. The academy award-winning actor and his partners Clarksdale resident/businessman Bill Luckett and entertainment executive Howard Stovall opened Ground Zero to help preserve a part of Delta music history.

Alysia was inspired by the three men to push on with her project to publish the complete work and ultimately fund a traveling exhibit. Her target publication date is May 2014. She is about halfway through her 50 interviews and is not nearly talked out. "I love listening to these women. Telling their stories is such an honor.'' Turning again to her grandmother's memory, she added, "She wasn't thrilled that I was pursuing photography. She wanted me to pursue a field where I could make money. But, I think she would be pleased with my work.''

Check out a sample of Alysia's project, Jewels of the Delta.