In Memory of Sylvia Woods

Sylvia Woods was not only the “Queen of Soul Food” but she was also a “queen”. A “queen” is defined as someone who is “preeminent”. Her monarch was “Sylvia’s”. Her culinary skills in cooking soul food rose to the gold standard. It attracted both the masses and the classes. Sylvia was a magnet.

I was introduced to Sylvia Woods in 1973. I was a poverty lawyer at Harlem Assertion of Rights in Harlem which was around the corner on 125th Street. She was a neighbor. On many days, my day would start at Sylvia’s over a plate of grits, eggs and biscuits. Sylvia’s lunch counter grew from a hole in the wall to a spacious, culinary empire. Everyday, she was there from opening to closing.

Several years ago, my family reunion was held in New York City and its environs. The first stop was Sylvia’s over a “Memorial Day” weekend. We toured New York City by boat and observed Black, historical sites. In between, our lodgings was at the historic, Peg Leg Bates Country Club and Resort which is near the birthplace of Sojourner Truth. The family attended church services at the historic Bethany Baptist Church in Brooklyn and our last, but not least, stop was at the historic Cotton Club.

It was fitting that we kicked of this family reunion at Sylvia’s. Sylvia Woods was not only a first-class person but she reigned over a first-class family. Unlike the “Queen of England”, she earned her wealth the old-fashioned way and she distributed it fairly amongst all family members.

The unemployment rate in the Woods family is zero. This is also a source of racial pride. Sen. Barack Obama, who once dined at Sylvia’s, as a presidential candidate in 2008, should take note. Sylvia took care of her own. Although she was only exposed to limited education in South Carolina, she fashioned the Woods’ economic theory of unemployment.

Three years ago, Leola and I had the distinct honor of being guests at her birthday celebration in Harlem. It was not only a festive occasion but it also was an intimate one. It was more family than friends. Her son, Van, and I are very close. Last year, he attended “Family Day” at Freedom Retreat for Boys and Girls. This year, he and his family were with us at the Gullah Festival.

After the birthday celebration, I had an occasion to share memories of it with my granddaughter, Malaysia. She was excited especially when it hit her that she and Sylvia enjoyed a birthday, February 2. She immediately started planning a future, birthday celebration that she and Sylvia would share together. It would have to wait until after she finished high school in South Carolina because February 2 comes in the middle of the school year.

During the height of the Civil Rights Movement, the main meeting place was Paschal’s in Atlanta, GA. In New York, Sylvia’s has followed in those footsteps. When Black politicians seek to conduct political business even if it involves the governor of New York or the mayor of New York City, dining at Sylvia’s should be at the top of the list.

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