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'Queen of Soul Food' Sylvia Woods to be Laid to Rest Wednesday

By Jeff Mays | July 20, 2012 3:06pm

HARLEM — Harlem's "Queen of Soul Food" will be laid to rest next week in a memorial service "fit for a queen," her family said Friday.

A wake for Sylvia Woods, 86, who died Thursday at her Westchester home after battling Alzheimer's, will be held Tuesday at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. The Rev. Al Sharpton will deliver Woods' eulogy Wednesday at her funeral at the Grace Baptist Church in Mount Vernon.

Even as the restaurant, on Lenox Avenue between 126th and 127th streets, became a destination for tourists, celebrities and politicians, it still remained a place for neighborhood folks, friends and family said.

The simple reason: Sylvia herself. And that's what they plan to celebrate.

"The only thing sweeter than her iced tea was Sylvia," Sharpton said during a press conference at Sylvia's Friday, as Woods' children, grandchildren and great grandchildren stood nearby.

Sharpton said Sylvia's was the first place then-Sen. Barack Obama suggested they meet up when he was a candidate for president in 2008.

"Whether it was Caroline Kennedy or someone in trouble, we would always come to Sylvia's," Sharpton added.

"She was everybody's mother," Sharpton added.

Woods' granddaughter, Tren'ness Woods-Black, said the family had planned a service "fit for a queen," a play on Sylvia Woods' nickname as the "Queen of Soul Food."

Sylvia Woods left behind four children, 18 grandchildren, 7 great-grand children and two great-great grandchildren, including one born just a month ago. Three generations of the family are still involved in running the business.

Her husband Herbert Woods, with whom she founded the business in 1962, died in 2001.

Van Woods, Sylvia's oldest son, said the family had plans to redevelop the restaurant and properties they owned on Lenox Avenue in keeping with Sylvia Woods' wishes and her legacy. They thanked the community for supporting the restaurant during what is its 50th anniversary.

"We look forward to continue her legacy which she has left to the family and we have been well prepared to take on the task," said Kenneth Woods, CEO and President of Sylvia Woods Inc.

Woods-Black said she hoped her grandmother's death would shed some light on Alzheimer's disease for the African-American community.

Sylvia Woods battled the disease for several years, according to her family.

Woods-Black said there were times when Sylvia couldn't remember names of her many grandchildren and great-grandchildren but she always said "I love you, baby," when they called her name.

"It is not something that that should be hidden in the closet," said Woods-Black.

Fans continued to gather in front of Sylvia's Friday as Harlem mourned for a woman that everybody felt like they knew.

Many recalled visiting the restaurant and seeing Sylvia there working or hugging and greeting the customers like she knew every single one of them.

Others recalled their favorite dish, whether it was collard greens and fried chicken or chitterlings, a cultural delicacy derived from slavery.

Joseph Crowder was at an outdoor concert an avenue away from Sylvia's Restaurant when it was announced that owner Sylvia Woods had died.

Walking past the restaurant at Lenox Avenue and 126th Street with friend Marie Stevens, Crowder, 48, abruptly stopped in front of the entrance and gave a deep bow.

"I did it out of respect because she is Harlem," said the Harlem resident and owner of a janitorial business. "You can't mention Harlem without mentioning Sylvia's and that will be forever."

"Harlem was her last name," added Stevens, a teacher.

Max Vesterhalt, an artist and lifelong Harlem resident, came by the restaurant after hearing of Sylvia's death Thursday.

She recalled seeing lines of expensive cars outside of the restaurant in the 1960s and 1970s.

"It was very exciting. The energy made you want to go in and rub shoulders. It made you want to be a part of it," said Vesterhalt.

But despite the fame of the restaurant, Sylvia looked out for the community. Vesterhalt recalled the restaurant's yearly free community breakfast every Aug. 1. The family says this year's breakfast will be a celebration of Woods' life and the restaurant's 50th anniversary.

"It became famous but the neighborhood still came because Sylvia was wonderful. She wasn't standoffish," said Vesterhalt who came to the restaurant for their $5 breakfasts and still loves eating their chitterlings or pig intestines.

Others, like James Kelliehar, 32, a stagehand, said Sylvia set an example for black entrepreneurs.

"You can't walk into a supermarket without seeing her products," said Kelliehar. "This gives the community something to look up to."

Shenika Lambert, 37 and Stacy Bonhomme, 47, who both work for a health management company, came from Queens to eat at the restaurant once they heard the news.

"The food didn't change over the years. It only got better," said Lambert.

The pair posed for a photo in from of a picture of Sylvia outside the restaurant.

"She set the example for African-American business owners that they could make it," said Bonhomme. "And even though she made money, she never changed. She still loved the community."

Taking the pair's picture was a photographer known simply as "Superfly." Wearing a pink blazer and red shirt, he said he had taken pictures outside of the restaurant for over a dozen years and had developed a relationship where Sylvia called him her "personal photographer" and her "bodyguard."

Superfly had pictures of everyone from President Bill Clinton to Joe Jackson, LL Cool J and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at the restaurant.

When Clinton came, the Secret Service wouldn't let him in and he asked for Sylvia to come to the door.

"She put her arm around me and told me to come in and take pictures," said Superfly.

"That's just how she was," he added.