Last week, when a coterie of notables gathered at Sylvia’s Restaurant for a press conference on the Harlem/Havana event, Lloyd Williams, who hosted the affair, gave a shout out to Kenneth Woods, Sylvia’s son. It was a recognition that echoed across the years, and if the event had been happening four years ago, Sylvia Woods would have been the recipient of the salute.
This was the kind of moment that she relished in the same way patrons relished opportunities to pull up a chair at one of her sumptuous meals, dining at the palace where the queen of soul food was in the kitchen.
Born Sylvia Pressley in Hemingway, S.C., Feb. 2, 1926, she came into the world as her father, Van, was departing. He died three days after she was born from the aftereffects of a chemical-weapons injury during military service in World War I. Three years later, her mother, Julia, left for New York City to find employment, leaving the child in the care of her grandmother. But, as we have learned, it takes a village to raise a child, and that’s what she received in Hemingway.
Along with the loving comfort of Hemingway residents, she also acquired the rudiments of southern cooking. There were more cooks in her community than you could shake a spatula at, to paraphrase one of her statements. Even so, southern hospitality was too often accompanied by southern hostility, including the oppressive Jim Crow laws and the lethal attitudes of white racists, some of whom were involved in the lynching of her grandfather, who was wrongly accused of robbing a store.
“I didn’t like any part of farm life,” Woods told a reporter. “I didn’t understand why they would not let me drink out of the same water fountain, but they would trust me to cook for them and to take care of their dearest thing, their babies.”
She was 11 when she met her husband, Herbert. He was 12. They met while picking green beans. “It was love at first sight,” Woods once effused. Still, as teenagers, their chances to court were three evening hours, twice a week. It was a frustrating situation, but it did not cool or stifle their romance.
In 1944, they married. At this time Woods owned a beauty shop in Hemingway but the couple soon left the South for California and then on to Harlem where Herbert Woods, a Navy veteran, found work in a Queens hat factory. Woods worked as a waitress at Johnson’s Luncheonette, from 1954 to 1962.
When Johnson was no longer able to keep the restaurant solvent, he offered it to Woods. With a $20,000 loan from her mother, with the family’s farm as collateral, Sylvia purchased the restaurant and began her illustrious ascent to the pinnacle of soul food.
During the turbulent 1960s when Black Nationalism and self-determination were the buzz words, Sylvia’s Restaurant was in a prime position to attract patrons, particularly with its delectable fried chicken, ribs, collard greens, corn bread and an assortment of mouth-watering desserts. Like Dookey Chase in New Orleans, Paschale’s in Atlanta and Roscoe’s in Los Angeles, Sylvia’s was the place to go for the best soul food in Harlem. The restaurant’s reputation spread both by word of mouth and the reviews in Black local and national publications.
By 1968, Sylvia’s was in a new location, occupying the almost block-long space on Malcolm X Boulevard between 126th and 127th Streets, including a catering operation. To capitalize on the restaurant’s growing recognition, Sylvia’s son, Van, having earned a marketing degree, answered customer’s requests for Sylvia’s barbecue sauce by bottling it.
In 1992, with $200,000 in startup funding, Van Woods launched Sylvia’s Queen of Soul Food, Inc., featuring the sauce with Sylvia’s photo on the container. Other bottled and canned goods followed—yams, mustard greens, kidney beans, etc.—several of which can be purchased in the major supermarkets across the nation. That same year, “Sylvia’s Soul Food Cookbook” was published, and six years later it would be expanded to “Sylvia’s Family Soul Food Cookbook,” including family photographs, recipes and personal reflections written by Woods.
Van Woods, ever enterprising, opened a restaurant in Atlanta in 1997 and began contemplating a similar operation in Florida. For a while there was even a Sylvia’s Express at Kennedy Airport. The family, with Kenneth Woods overseeing operations, launched a line of beauty products under the Sylvia’s label.
When Woods died July 19, 2014, after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease, her funeral services at Grace Baptist Church in Mt. Vernon were packed, and the audience sat enraptured as her life was recalled by a number of notables, including former President Bill Clinton, former Mayor David Dinkins and the Rev. Al Sharpton, who delivered the eulogy.
“She was connected,” Sharpton explained, “she was connect to us in so many ways, and her story needs to be told.”
And portions of it certainly were told on this solemn occasion by Mayor Ernie Davis of Mt. Vernon. Woods’ life was “worthy of humility.” She possessed a “sense of values and warmth …” we need to invest in ourselves the way “she invested in our community.”
She was not only “a spirit on the table,” said the Rev. James Forbes, pastor emeritus of Riverside Church, “but a spirit in the atmosphere, and that spirit built a community.”
Former Gov. David Paterson, his wit as sharp as ever, anticipated Sharpton’s eulogy with his own soul food memories and a meal that, once ingested, “left you feeling better than when you arrived.” Citing a bit of Shakespeare, Paterson compared Woods to the stars. It was a useful segue for Dinkins to invoke Ralph Waldo Emerson and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But more down to Earth, the mayor said that patrons at Sylvia’s “were not just customers, they were neighbors. She was the matriarch of our community.”
“Ms. Sylvia Woods now takes her place alongside our other freedom sisters who have contributed and dedicated their entire lives to uplifting the civil rights, social justice and education equality of all Americans despite race, color or creed,” Rep. Charles Rangel wrote of her. “As was said of another great American, Sylvia was a credit to her race—the human race.”