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In search for grandmother, author finds many 'church mothers'

Lillie Jackson, 88, of Tutwiler, Mississippi, is the widow of Woodrow "Champ" Jackson, the funeral director who prepared the body of 14-year-old Emmett Till for burial. Blacks deserted Tutwiler after his death, she says, packing their belongings into cotton sacks and walking away from their homes out of fear for their children's lives. Most of her friends moved to Chicago. / Alysia Burton Steele

Church mothers are the foundation of the black church. They can be found in the front pews and the hierarchy of many churches. They are the glue that has nurtured generations of worshipers.

“In 1915, a group of mothers gathered to ensure that the youth of this community received spiritual guidance, training and nurturing. The result was Bryn Mawr Community Church,” says the Rev. Karl Wilson, pastor of the South Side church, which this month celebrates its 100th birthday. “Our church has remained committed to the mission of those mothers.”

That’s the kind of reverence at the heart of a new book that was going to be about one women but ended up being about many, “Delta Jewels: In Search of My Grandmother’s Wisdom,” (Center Street, $28) by Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Alysia Burton Steele.

She profiles 54 women, ranging from their 60s to 90s, church mothers all, in the Mississippi Delta region known as “the most Southern place on earth.”

Steele, 44, an assistant professor of journalism at The University of Mississippi, was on a mission to learn more about the heritage of the late grandmother who raised her, for whom she still pined 20 years after her death.

Alysia Burton Steele

In the process, she ended up gaining 54 new grandmothers.

There’s Lillie Jackson, 88, of Tutwiler, Mississippi. She’s the wife of Woodrow “Champ” Jackson, the funeral director who handled the body of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old Chicago boy who was tortured and murdered by two white men in Money, Mississippi, in 1955, allegedly for whistling at a white woman. Till’s death was a pivotal moment in the Civil Rights Movement.

“Bossman called him for to go pick up Emmett Till. He couldn’t go by himself. He had to have police escort him,” Lillie Jackson recounts. “After he did the body, he took him to Memphis and put him on a train, then from there sent him back to Chicago. My husband, he didn’t like to talk about it, stuff like that. He kept it to himself.”

There’s Myrlie Evers Williams, 82, of Jackson, Mississippi. She is a former NAACP chair and was married to revered civil rights activist Medgar Evers, who was gunned down in 1963 by a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Her husband had drawn several assassination attempts working to desegregate gas station restrooms and beaches and The University of Mississippi, as well as investigating the Till case and that of civil rights martyr Clyde Kennard.

Myrlie Evers Williams, 82, of Jackson, Mississippi, is the widow of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers. Her grandmother was housekeeper for a white family and would bring home the girl’s clothes and tailor them to fit the young girl, who preferred to wear skirts made of croker — flour — sacks. / Alysia Burton Steele

“Every Thursday, Grandmother would bring home the leftover food from this white family’s home. She was a superb cook. And she would bring home clothes for me from the young girl in this white family,” Williams is quoted saying of her childhood. “But I reached a point that I was weary of wearing that girl’s clothes. [So] my grandmother took it upon herself to take a croker [flour] sack and make skirts out of it. I preferred that.”

The book is a love letter to Steele’s “Gram,” Althenia Burton, who grew up in Spartanburg, North Carolina, and raised three children and, later, her grandchild in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. She died of colon cancer on Sept. 15, 1994, at age 64.

“The memory of my grandmother grows less dim, even makes me weepy from time to time, as I work on this project. Interviewing other people’s grandmothers and those like Mrs. Evers, who were also raised by their grandmothers, makes me feel closer to Gram,” Steele writes. “If I close my eyes, I think I can still hear her voice.”

Steele, who was part of a Dallas Morning News team that won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for photos of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, has been teaching at ‘Ole Miss since 2012.

The idea for “Delta Jewels” came during a drive through a region once filled with cotton plantations along the Mississippi River, an area filled with disappearing back roads and the ghosts of struggle and hardship that birthed the blues and jazz.

Seeking the help of pastors, she homed in on these church mothers of her grandmother’s generation. She tells of critical life moments and witnesses to history, celebrating themes of resilience, strong marriages, the importance of education and the primacy of motherhood.

Annyce Campbell, 90, of Mound Bayou, Mississippi, for example. She was such a fan of President Barack Obama that she took down her grandchildren’s photos to be replaced by Obama’s when he won. Campbell, married 69 years then widowed, tells Steele, tearfully: “He was the first somebody that I loved.” She also talks of dropping off their first daughter at college.

“We started home. Last thing, I saw her up in the window looking at us driving off the campus. We got on the road a long ways. I don’t know where we were when he heard me crying. He said, ‘You wanna go back?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ I guess we drove 100 miles back to Nashville. I didn’t say nothing to him, and he didn’t say nothing to me, but he heard me sniffle . . . On campus . . . I looked up at that window; wasn’t nobody there. He say, ‘She all right.’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ ”

Annyce Campbell, 90, of Mound Bayou, Miss., loves President Barack Obama so much that she took down photos of her grandchildren from her wall to hang up a photo of the president. / Alysia Burton Steele