Delta Jewels gathering attracts hundreds

 Author Alysia Burton Steele poses with 29 Delta Jewels July 11 in Mound Bayou during her presentation about her book "Delta Jewels: In Search of My Grandmother's Wisdom." Photos by Bobby D. Steele, Jr.

Author Alysia Burton Steele poses with 29 Delta Jewels July 11 in Mound Bayou during her presentation about her book "Delta Jewels: In Search of My Grandmother's Wisdom." Photos by Bobby D. Steele, Jr.

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.

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 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.

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.”