‘If You Want to Experience Liberation, Black Women Must Be at the Table’Breaking News
tags: civil rights, African American history, food history, womens history, Protest
As the daughter of Frances and granddaughter of Aquilla and Viola Mae, the largest lesson I’ve learned is that if you want to experience liberation, Black women must be at the table. So to answer the question of what must be done to gather, heal, and protect our community, I decided to use my imagination to host a time-bending For Us By Us council of Black woman food activists from the past and present. Each one of them used their love of the community to activate their passion for civil rights, cooking, farming, cooperative economics, historical stewardship, sustainable food systems, and food access.
Sitting at this figurative table of multidisciplinary food activists are ancestors Georgia Gilmore, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Ruth Beckford, along with contemporaries Adrian Lipscombe, Thérèse Nelson, Lindsey Lunsford, and Adrionna Fike. Some of these women you may already be familiar with, but my hope is that if you don’t know them, this story will send you in their direction and beyond.
Georgia Gilmore was born in 1920. A cafeteria worker, midwife, and single mom, she started fundraising for the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) in 1956 by selling food and organizing other cooks under the cover of the name Club from Nowhere. Together, they raised essential funds to support the Montgomery bus boycott that began on December 5, 1955, and lasted for 381 days. Although the boycott was catalyzed by the arrest of Rosa Parks, many people, including Georgia, had started their own bus boycotts months earlier to protest abusive and unequal treatment. During the Montgomery boycott, Georgia would often sing a song as she distributed the hundreds of dollars in jangling coins and folded bills into the collection plate at the weekly MIA community rallies.
After being fired from the National Lunch Company because of her outspoken activism during the boycott, Georgia ran a restaurant out of her home to feed protesters and other organizers, including Martin Luther King, Jr., who was one of her benefactors. It was a place where they knew the food was going to be delicious — but more importantly, safe.
Georgia died in 1990, on the 25th anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery March. The food she prepared before she passed away that morning fed the protesters at the commemorative march that day.
Some 25 years later, on the 50th anniversary of the march, Lindsey Lunsford found herself on the bridge to Selma at a pit stop, eating the most restorative soul food of her life as she nursed the blisters on her feet from the 40-mile walk. As I spoke to Lindsey about her connection to Georgia’s legacy, what became clear is that she, like Georgia, knows that food is the basis of identity, healing, and liberation within the Black community. Lindsey’s role as a Sustainable Food Systems Resource Specialist at Tuskegee University is what I imagine Georgia’s role was to her community: innovating on the mission of resourcing and caretaking her people in the face of unchecked racism.
For Lindsey, that work includes facilitating public community dialogues where, she says, “residents of the Black Belt are able to share their food traditions and feel supported in reclaiming them.” At each of these dialogues, Lindsey provides the soul food that is proven to uplift the social and cultural wellness of her community. Georgia would be proud.
Georgia’s legacy has also influenced Thérèse Nelson, who this past February wrote the Southern Living article “The Story of Georgia Gilmore.” In it, she stated that “hospitality professionals provided practices and strategies that became the most effective tools of resistance.” Thérèse would know: Like Georgia, she is a caterer and private chef, and claimed that expression for her cooking skills because it gave her, she tells me, “the power to have full autonomy over [my] practice” in the food industry. “It is one of the most dexterous opportunities in business,” she adds. “And we wouldn’t have the network of food supporting protests if [we] didn’t have the [catering] skill set.”
As she navigated the sociopolitical realities of the food community, Thérèse felt strongly that there was more she needed to learn, or rather unlearn. That led her to begin researching and reclaiming our Black food stories with Black Culinary History, the organization she founded in 2008. Ever since, she’s made the connections between past and present and cultivated networks around the food skills and technology necessary for Black liberation. Those she has worked with and learned from range from young ones with a burgeoning interest in food to cutting-edge chefs to land-based food projects like Soul Fire Farm, Black Urban Growers, and Black Church Food Security Network.
Today, Thérèse imagines a future where these projects are shared and thriving. “During the civil rights era, the leaders were so intentional and connected,” she says. “I hope history sees our movement in the same way.”