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'Queen of Soul Food' Sylvia Woods Remembered in Harlem Public Funeral

By Jeff Mays | July 24, 2012 12:19pm | Updated on July 25, 2012 6:57am

HARLEM — A wake for "Queen of Soul Food" Sylvia Woods at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem Tuesday drew former President Bill Clinton, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former Mayor David Dinkins, Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott and Councilwoman Inez Dickens to honor the celebrated restaurateur.

Woods, 86, who founded the famed Sylvia's Restaurant, died Thursday at her Westchester home. Her family said she had been battling Alzheimer's disease for several years.

Woods and her late husband Herbert founded what would become the nationally and internationally known soul food restaurant 50 years ago. They also have a line of canned and frozen goods that are sold in supermarkets.

A horse-drawn carriage pulled up outside the wake on Tuesday in lieu of the traditional hearse, and several limousines for Woods' family lined the block.

The streets around the Abyssinian Baptist Church were also teeming with those who came to pay their respects, and everyone seemed to have a story about Woods.

"I used to do her hair in the '60s," said Danni Youngblood, 72, now a retired hairdresser.

"She was so humble," Youngblood added. "She loved everyone, and it didn't matter where you came from or what you looked like."

James Booker, 59, an artist, said he was friends with some members of Woods' family.

"She was an icon in the way she brought people together through food," Booker said. "She cared about peace, harmony and love."

Woods laid in an ebony casket surrounded by seven white rose flower arrangements. A 60-plus member choir was present. And members of Sylvia's kitchen came out in their white chef's shirts and touched her casket. They received a standing ovation.

The Rev. Calvin Butts called Woods the "pre-eminent, never disputed, never refuted 'queen of soul food.'"

He said the service was to "celebrate the life of Sister Sylvia Woods."

The Rev. Floyd Flake, senior pastor with the Greater Allen African Methodist Episcopal Cathedral, said Woods triumphed over segregation, racism and sexism.

"In 1962, she probably said to herself those historical words: 'Ain't I a woman. Despite what they think of me as a woman, I can be an entrepreneur,'" said Flake.

Flake added that when God called her home, Woods said, "just get the pots and pans ready."

Former President Clinton said that when he moved to Harlem, Sylvia's made him feel welcome and at home.

"When people came to see me from all over America and the world and wanted to know what Harlem was like, I sent them to Sylvia's, and they were made to feel welcome and at home," Clinton said.

Bloomberg praised Woods for her contributions to Harlem and New York City.

"When you sat down at the table, you were part of the extended family," said Bloomberg. "She brought the world to Harlem, and she made sure the world took Harlem back home with them."

Bloomberg ended by saying: "See you at Sylvia's."

Former Mayor David Dinkins said Woods made some of the best fried chicken, collard greens and black-eyed peas that he had ever tasted.

"With the passing of Sylvia Woods, we've lost another legend of the Harlem community," said Dinkins. "Sylvia's is more than a business, it is a testament to our traditions."

"She put her soul in the soul food and earned her crown as the queen," added Dinkins. "Sylvia's will be missed, but we must take comfort in knowing that the Harlem community is a better place because she was here."

Councilwoman Inez Dickens said that Woods' legacy "will last as long as the village of Harlem."

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, at 328 Lenox Ave. between 126th and 127th streets, became a destination for tourists, politicians such as then-Sen. Barack Obama,  and neighborhood residents alike.

The funeral was filled with Gospel singing that brought the crowd to its feet.

There was also laughter.

Business Consultant Geoff Schaber explained how he lived near the restaurant for six months because the Woods family wanted him to get to know them and what they were about as he helped them to expand their brand.

"I became known as the white guy selling collard greens," said Schaber, who said he was asked many times, "What you know about collard greens?"

Thanks to those months living near the restaurant he knew a lot but learned more about the values the Woods family holds dear.

"Those six months were the most special time of my life," said Schaber.

Butts joked how Woods had reached the highest heights in the Baptist Church with her three-hour funeral. He also drew laughter in describing how Harlem's political circles competed to be seen walking into Sylvia's with Clinton to impress their peers.

There was also heartbreak. Woods' grandson and niece broke into tears as they described how she lovingly pushed their boundaries in an effort to make them as successful as possible.

"Sylvia believed in herself so she could walk with kings and not lose the common touch," said Butts.

Yet, said many mourners, there was not an overwhelming atmosphere of sadness.

"I've been to a lot of funerals at Abyssinian but I've never seen one like this," said Willie Russ, 63, a school safety agent and member of the church who attended the funeral.

"It wasn't like a funeral, it was like a joyful church service. It shows that that lady was the real thing," he added.

As the funeral wound down, a New-Orleans style brass band could be heard playing in the street outside the church. After Woods' casket was carried out on the shoulders of six men, she was placed in a horse-drawn carriage with glass windows for a funeral procession through Harlem.

The procession stopped at West 131st Street between Fifth Avenue and Lenox Avenue where Woods once lived. Waiting outside was Queen McFarland who said she grew up playing with Sylvia's children.

"One flight up," she said, pointing to the window where Woods used to live.

As the procession wound its way through Harlem's side streets, kids took a break from playing and climbed on fences to watch.

"She's home," yelled one man as the procession made a left turn on Fifth Avenue.

"We love you," screamed a woman on Fredrick Douglas Boulevard.

Outside the Apollo Theater, the horse-drawn carriage stopped and the brass band played "When the Saints Go Marching In" before proceeding down 125th Street and stopping in front of Sylvia's restaurant, where hundreds of mourners lined the street and median in front of the restaurant.

Hundreds of people lined the path to the restaurant and waved flags from Japan, Germany and Norway, among other places, to represent the home countries of people who have visited the restaurant over the years.

After a moment of silence, Woods' casket was then transferred to the Rolls Royce hearse and driven off to cheers and applause.

"I never met her in person but I came to pay my respects because of the way she carried herself and her business and the legacy she left behind," said Joyce Hodge, a childcare worker from Harlem who filmed the procession and attended the service.

"She gave so many lessons that I can impart to my children," said Hodge.

The services for Woods are not over. On Wednesday morning, another funeral service will be held at the Grace Baptist Church in Mount Vernon. The Rev. Al Sharpton will eulogize Woods. Yet another service will be held on Saturday in Woods' native Hemingway, South Carolina.