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Freedom, Finances, and Fried Chicken

For Black women in America — especially in Virginia — fried chicken has always been a lifeline

A Black woman chef holds a plate of fried chicken and other Southern staples as two Black women cooks, her predecessors, support her on either side. Above them, more chicken, a biscuit sandwich, and slices of cake and cornbread float.

Of all the foods the South has given to the American culinary landscape, fried chicken is one of the most impactful. And for good reason. In the more than 300 years since the dish was first recorded in the American South, it has garnered international praise for the characteristic combination of textures, techniques, and flavors that go into it: Crispy, crunchy skin hides juicy and tender meat inside, and if done properly, the seasonings can be tasted to the bone.

But where did one of America’s most popular foods begin? And, perhaps more importantly, what is the legacy of the enslaved and later free Black women who perfected this intrinsically Southern food? Signs point to Virginia, where there are still Black women who cook traditional Southern food and see the importance of having fried chicken on their menus.

When Virginia was still a colony, chicken was already a regular staple on wealthy dining tables. In 1634, when Captain Thomas Young visited Jamestown, he noted, “We found tables furnished with pork, kids [young goats], chickens, turkeys, young geese, caponetts and such other fowls as the seas of the year afforded.” By the 1700s, fried chicken was a beloved dish of Virginia governor William Byrd, who wrote about it in his diary, which is the earliest written account in America. Its popularity grew, and in 1828, fried chicken was firmly immortalized in the third edition of the first American cookbook, The Virginia Housewife. The recipe instructs the reader to cut the chicken “as for the fricassee [a thick white stew often made with chicken], dredge them well with flour, sprinkle them with salt” before frying with lard until the pieces are “a light brown.” In almost 200 years, the recipe remains nearly unchanged.

Enslaved Black women were considered to be experts in preparing everything now thought to be Southern food, including fried chicken. After the Civil War, they understood their freedom meant they could fully grasp some agency over their lives all while creating and sustaining economic freedom for themselves through their culinary talents.

“Food serves more than its intended function to nourish and to satiate. … But, the trading and selling of these foods for commerce also provided relative autonomy, social power, and economic freedom,” writes Psyche A. Williams-Forson in her book Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs.

Although Williams-Forson published her book in 2006, she still believes not much has changed since the dish was first brought to the American South. “Africans were frying food before coming to America,” she says. “When that mechanism came to the South, it was over-perfected by Black women. As evidenced by the work that I’ve done and found, it was part of a tradition associated with Black women. What I am more concerned with is what Black people did with this food that we had been mocked with. I’m more concerned with our resilience.”

Perhaps the most notable women who embodied this tenacity were the “waiter carriers” in Gordonsville, Virginia, who were the reason that the town was named the fried chicken capital of the world in 1869 by writer George W. Bagby. In March 1862, during the Civil War, the Army of Northern Virginia transformed the Exchange Hotel near the train stop into the Gordonsville Receiving Hospital, and during this time, the waiter carriers served thousands of soldiers who stopped through the town.

A chef’s gloved hand extends a plate of fried chicken, greens, and cornbread toward an unseen customer as they hold out a hand offering money in exchange.

Gordonsville is about 20 miles outside of Charlottesville, and with the advent of the Louisa Railroad in 1840, it became a major stop on two train lines. When a train arrived in the station to drop off passengers or pick them up, they were met by the smells wafting through the open train windows of fried chicken and other baked goods that Black women carried in baskets on their heads. Because few jobs were readily available or accessible to Black women at the time, many used their culinary talents to provide for their families after the Civil War.

In 1871, C&0 Railroad sent northern newspaper editors to the South, and the scene was described like this: “We were surrounded with a swarm of old and young negroes … carrying large servers upon their heads, containing pies, cakes, chickens, boiled eggs, strawberries and cream, ripe cherries, oranges, tea and coffee, biscuit sandwiches, fried ham and eggs, and other edibles, which they offered for sale.”

Unfortunately, with the introduction of dining cars and air-conditioning that required permanently closed windows, along with license taxes that were imposed by 1879, the waiter carriers were slowly phased out. What remains in Gordonsville is a plaque honoring “the first black female entrepreneurs” in the town. The plaque reads: “With the introduction of rail service, enterprising African-American women commenced a tradition that was to symbolize Gordonsville forever as the ‘Fried Chicken Capital of the World.’ ”

“It wasn’t just in Gordonsville, it was all around the South,” Williams-Forson says. “You can look at the census, and there are many Black women who were noted as caterers.”

To this day, the city still holds an annual fried chicken festival, although the city’s focus has shifted away from celebrating the women the town once lauded. But, as Black people began to use their talents to become entrepreneurs by selling chicken, stereotypes sprang up that turned their empowerment into mockery and were used to justify racism and discrimination. This led to the creation of restaurants with names such as Coon Chicken Inn and Mammy’s Cupboard, which leaned into stereotypes about Black people all while selling food they made popular.

Fast-forward a few decades, and the legacy of Black women in Virginia who use their culinary talents to provide for their families and their communities still endures, regardless of external opinions or baggage. Michele Wilson is the chef at Ma Michele’s in Richmond, Virginia, and although she was born in Philadelphia, she has deep roots in Virginia.

“I did some research and found out my grandmother was born in Petersburg in 1901, and my grandfather was born in Lynchburg in 1903,” Wilson says. Wilson cooked with her family from an early age as she was growing up. Even now, she says she still uses her mother and grandmother’s recipe for fried chicken. “I knew something about what Black women had to do to sustain themselves [through cooking] and felt a kinship,” Wilson says.

When Wilson’s siblings moved to Virginia, she followed suit in 1989. While working as a mortgage specialist with Bank of America, she would make food for her office’s potlucks and soon began catering the office’s events. Shortly after, she worked for catering companies full-time before opening Ma Michele’s in 2015. Since then, Wilson has amassed plenty of experience preparing a variety of cuisines, but she chose to focus on Southern cuisine to showcase the dishes that reflect her identity and the work she watched family members put into their cooking, rather than concern herself with stereotypes or tired tropes mocking what it means to make the staple dish.

“I won’t separate from my culture,” she says. “Black chefs are rare and can tell the story now and can change the narrative.”

Like Wilson, Shane Roberts-Thomas, chef-owner of Southern Kitchen in Richmond, left her job in sales and marketing to open a restaurant. She learned how to cook from her grandmother, and Big Mama’s Fried Chicken is the restaurant’s best seller.

“I’ve been cooking all my life,” Roberts-Thomas says. “In the Black community, cooking is a way of life. Most women my age were cooking from a young age … there were no Chick-Fil-A’s.” The born-and-raised Virginia chef says she feels a connection to the Black women cooks who came before her and believes those women created a foundation for her to be able to run a successful restaurant.

“I have a fine dining restaurant making money off of collard greens, cornbread, fried chicken, fried fish, and the food we ate growing up every day,” Roberts-Thomas says. “The people before me that paid their dues to allow me to be able to do this … their spirit lives within me. I want to do them justice when I am cooking.”

Even though Black women are the reason you can look at menus all over the country and see fried chicken, the impact of Black women in the culinary space extends far beyond that single dish and needs to be acknowledged. It is clear their hands have touched nearly every facet of what we consider American food, yet their achievements are rarely spoken about or celebrated, let alone celebrated to the same degree as many others in the food space. The skills born of necessity during enslavement later became the tools to support their families and their communities, and because of their skill and culinary innovation, the recipes spread throughout the country, leaving dishes that still endure.

We cannot be certain of the first person to fry chicken in America, but everyone who enjoys the Gospel Bird owes a debt to the Black women who cooked under unimaginable conditions to create a better life for themselves and their families. Without their ingenuity, talent, and knowledge, our nation would be far less delicious.

Debra Freeman is a food and cultural anthropologist and writer that focuses on Black culinary history.
Keisha Okafor is a Nigerian-American artist and designer whose work depicts joy and celebrates people.
Copy edited by Leilah Bernstein