OXFORD, Miss. – A prize-winning University of Mississippi journalism instructor is the 2016 recipient of a prestigious award from the Mississippi Humanities Council.
Alysia Burton Steele, assistant professor of multimedia, will be presented the Preserver of Mississippi Culture Award on Friday (Feb. 12) at the Old Capitol Museum in Jackson. The award, which recognizes an individual or organization for extraordinary efforts to protect and promote the cultural traditions and assets of the state, is in recognition of Steele’s book, “Delta Jewels: In Search of My Grandmother’s Wisdom” (Center Street, 2015). The invitation-only awards program begins at 6:45 p.m.
“I’ve partnered with the Delta Center and Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area, and we are doing statewide tours to present and preserve oral history in part by the ‘Delta Jewels’ stories,” Steele said. “That partnership and my passion for collecting these Mississippi stories inspired the prestigious nomination, for which I am in awe. For me, this recognition is encouraging because others are seeing value in the stories from a powerful, brave, strong demographic often overlooked in mainstream media.”
A finalist in the 2015 Jessie Redmon Fauset Book Awards for nonfiction, the book has been featured in The New York Times, NBC.com, USA Today, Chicago Sun-Times, National Public Radio, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Essence, theroot.com (owned by the Washington Post), Free Lance-Star, The Clarion-Ledger and Southern Living.
“(Her) remarkable book of oral histories and photographs calls attention to an important, but often overlooked part of Mississippi history,” said Stuart Rockoff, MHC executive director. “These largely unheralded women have been the crucial backbone for the Delta’s African-American community.
“In addition to the book, our award recognizes Ms. Steele’s efforts to bring the stories of these women to audiences across Mississippi and the United States.”
Steele said she drove 6,000 miles, took more than 7,000 photos and collected more than 240 hours of raw audio while interviewing 54 women from 27 towns in the Mississippi Delta and Hills regions. She did this without major grants or sponsorships for nine months to complete this personal project.
“I did this project because I missed my grandmother, the woman who raised me,” Steele said. “She and my grandfather raised me from age 4 to18. I never photographed her or recorded her voice, and I missed her. That hit me when I saw the Delta and it reminded me of our summer visits to her family in South Carolina.
“It was never meant to be a book, but instead a personal journey for collecting oral history and photographing women church elders for poignant stories about life in Mississippi during the Jim Crow era.”
During the process of writing the work, the author faced and overcame several challenges and obstacles, including driving at least four hours round-trip to interview and photograph women, transcribe and work with her mentor, Stan Alost, on picture editing, all while teaching.
“I was exhausted but determined to get this project done before any of the women passed away,” Steele said. “That’s what drove me to work so hard.”
Sadly, Rosie Bynum, 101, of Leland died four months before Steele’s book was published last April.
“What’s bittersweet is that she left a quilt for me that she made and stuffed with cotton that she picked,” Steele said. “Her daughter, Patricia, presented it to me and I burst into tears. It touched me so much. I’m very sad she passed away before she could see the book, but I know she was proud of what we were doing.”
Steele’s latest honor is well deserved, said Will Norton, dean of UM’s Meek School of Journalism and New Media.
“When one reads Al’s stories and sees these photos and listens to these women on panels and presentations, one is in awe at the strength of character and faith they exhibit,” Norton said. “That Al was able to obtain these stories and have them published is a major contribution to the state and our society.”
A Pennsylvania native, Steele received her bachelor’s degree in journalism from Indiana University of Pennsylvania and her master’s degree in photography from Ohio University’s School of Visual Communication. She has worked as a staff photographer/multimedia producer at the Columbus Dispatch, a picture editor at the Dallas Morning News and deputy director of photography/picture editor at the Atlanta-Journal Constitution.
A UM faculty member since 2012, she said connecting with students is what she finds most gratifying about her work.
“The bonds are strong and they keep me young,” Steele said. “I’d like to think I’ve made an impact on some of them, as my mentors have for me. We never work alone and we must always pay it forward, so I love teaching and challenging students.”
Steele spent five weeks documenting life in South Africa, Uganda and Ivory Coast, where her images were featured in Habitat for Humanity’s 25th anniversary coffee table book. While a photographer at the Columbus Dispatch, she won the 2004 James Gordon Understanding Award for photographic excellence for her monthlong assignment inside the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya. In 2006, she was part of the photo team that won the Pulitzer Prize in Breaking News for their Hurricane Katrina coverage where she served as a picture editor.
For three consecutive years, she did the picture editing and layout/design for the Arnold Schwarzenegger Sports Classic coffee table book. She also did picture editing for the National Urban League and designed its 100th commemorative poem booklet written by Maya Angelou. She’s won numerous awards for her photography and picture editing.
Of all the accolades Steele has received, the MHS honor is unique, she said.
“For me, this recognition is encouraging because others are seeing value in the stories from a powerful, brave, strong demographic often overlooked in mainstream media. Their stories are American stories and they transcend race, gender and age,” Steele said.
“All I’m doing is honoring those elders by listening to their stories and letting them know that I appreciate all that they have done and endured so future generations would have a better life. Seeing the women’s faces filled with pride is the best accolade I could receive. “