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Sylvia Woods, Harlem's 'Queen of Soul Food,' Dead at 86

By  Jeff Mays Jill Colvin and Amy Zimmer | July 19, 2012 6:25pm | Updated on July 19, 2012 8:59pm

HARLEM — Sylvia Woods, the "Queen of Soul Food," whose legendary eponymous restaurant in Harlem was world famous, died at the age of 86 Thursday.

She died "peacefully" at 4:50 p.m. at her Westchester home after battling Alzheimer's, her family said in a statement. The news prompted an outpouring of memories from friends and local officials, who celebrated her life as a Harlem institution who put the neighborhood on the culinary map.

"We want to thank everyone for all the love they showed us through the 50 years," said Woods' granddaughter, Tren'ness Woods-Black, standing outside of the restaurant Thursday evening with her father Kenneth Woods.

"My grandmother was a loving person and we appreciate that."

Sylvia Woods, "the Queen of Soul Food," pictured on her 80th birthday.
Sylvia Woods, "the Queen of Soul Food," pictured on her 80th birthday.
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Facebook/Sylvia's Restaurant

Woods, who hailed from Hemingway, S.C., opened Sylvia's Restaurant in 1962, with help from her mother, Julia Pressley, a farmer and midwife who mortgaged her farm to loan money for the purchase, the restaurant's website said.

Woods built the spot at 328 Lenox Ave. and West 127th Street with her husband and childhood sweetheart, Herbert, into a dining destination for locals and tourists, who flocked to the neighborhood by the busload for a taste of her legendary fried chicken and collard greens.

Sylvia's also became a hub for politicians, hosting Congress members, presidents and other power brokers.

U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel, who celebrated his recent primary victory at the restaurant, said Sylvia's was "a magical place that brought the community together."

In an interview, Rangel told DNAinfo.com New York that he had first met Woods more than 40 years ago, when he was still lawyer, and she was working as a waitress at another eatery.

He watched as she and her husband turned Sylvia's into an institution, doing everything — from buying their vegetables at the local market to waiting tables — themselves.

What made the restaurant so memorable, he said, was the way Woods embraced her customers, stopping by tables to catch up and chat.

"She treated you just like she was family," Rangel said.

And of course there was also the food.

Rangel said he used to think soul food was something that only southern folks ate. But she quickly changed his — and others' —minds.

In the process, she became an "icon," he said, even eclipsing the powerful people she fed.

“She put Lenox Avenue on the map," he said. “We’re going to miss that lady."

Mayor Michael Bloomberg had coincidentally scheduled his annual Harlem Week reception Thursday evening, where Woods was scheduled to receive an award commemorating the restaurant's 50th anniversary. He held a moment of silence for Woods before presenting the award.

In a statement, he commended Woods' commitment to Harlem, noting that she never forgot to give back by creating the Herbert and Sylvia Woods Scholarship Endowment Fund for Harlem High School seniors.

"We lost a legend today," the mayor said. "In her words, the food was made with ‘a whole lot of love’ and generations of family and friends have come together at what became a New York institution."

He added: "New York City will never forget the Queen of Soul Food."

In Harlem, memories of the matriarch poured out as news of her passing spread.

"My heart goes out to the Woods family," said Harold Mozelle, a retired postal worker, who said he loved coming to Sylvia's for the oxtail, cabbage and rice before concerns about high blood pressure made him visit less frequenety.

"The lemonade is slamming," he said, "and so is the fried chicken."

Zakiya Bey, 73, a retired child care worker, said she visited Sylvia's before moving to North Carolina, where people often asked about the restaurant when they learned she was a Harlemite.

"It's so well known. Who doesn't know Sylvia's?" she asked.

"Sylvia's is pretty much a legend," her son Mwamba Bey, 52, a CPR instructor, agreed.

Both said Woods' passing reminded them of how Harlem has changed, with tourists now flocking to the restaurant on tour buses.

Woods' family was together in Westchester when she passed away, her granddaughter said.

"Ms. Woods was surrounded by a host of family and loved ones," a statement from her family said. "Sylvia gallantly battled Alzheimer's for the past several years, but never once lost her loving smile.

"Sylvia publicly announced at her 80th birthday celebration that she was retiring and passing the torch to her children and grandchildren," the statement continued, "whom have worked side by side with her and her late husband Herbert building a Soul Food empire for the past 50 years."