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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.

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‘Church Mothers': The Glue that Holds Many Black Churches Together  was originally published on