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'Queen of Soul Food' Sylvia Woods Hailed as a Trailblazer at Second Funeral

By Jeff Mays | July 25, 2012 6:49pm

MOUNT VERNON, N.Y. — In order to truly understand "Queen of Soul Food" Sylvia Woods, it's first necessary to have an understanding of the history of soul food itself, the Rev. Al Sharpton told an overflow crowd packed into Grace Baptist Church here to say farewell to the beloved restaurateur.

Soul food staples such as chitterlings and collard greens were scraps that slave owners in the Deep South gave their captives to eat. Slaves then took that food and made it into something special enough to nourish and bond a community together, Sharpton said during the eulogy.

"We made it through the worst slavery in recorded history eating hog insides and wild greens," said Sharpton, president of the National Action Network, to wild applause.

Eventually, slaves became so good at cooking the food that "the master who put us out there said: 'What is that? Give me a dish of that."

Woods carried that tradition when she and her husband founded Sylvia's Restaurant 50 years ago. They bonded with Harlem first, and eventually the rest of the world, through her food.

"Soul food ain't soul food unless you touch the soul of those you serve," said Sharpton.

Woods, who died Thursday at 86 after a long battle with Alzheimer's, touched the lives of many who passed through her restaurant. She was praised as a model entrepreneur, quiet civic activist and matriarch of her large family — both real and extended — during a second viewing and funeral Wednesday morning.

Former Gov. David Paterson, former New York City Mayor David Dinkins, James Forbes Jr., senior minister emeritus of The Riverside Church, Rev. Calvin Butts, pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church and Hazel Dukes, president of the New York NAACP all spoke about Woods' life and impact on Harlem and the world.

"Every protest, every movement, every plan, every law, started with a breakfast or lunch at Sylvia's," Paterson said of the restaurant that was an obligatory stomping ground for most of New York City's black politicians or politicians seeking the black vote.

Sharpton said it was more about Woods' way of making everyone, from the panhandler standing outside to the governor, feel special that kept patrons coming as the restaurant grew from a counter into an international tourist destination with busloads of Japanese tourists desperate to taste southern delicacies such as candied yams or salmon croquettes.

"We don't say farewell to Sylvia, we say another generation will rise," said Dukes, who spoke of how Sylvia's Restaurant had to supply the food for an NAACP convention at the Hilton because attendees didn't want to eat hotel food.

Dukes also had fond memories of how she ate at Sylvia's before heading out to protests she knew were going to land her in jail for at least the night.

She said she expects Woods' family to carry on the tradition.

Two of Woods' four children, Van and Kenneth Woods, spoke on behalf of the family.

"What she was to us was love, just full of love and generosity," said Kenneth Woods. "She always said a closed hand gives nothing and receives nothing."

Van Woods said he and his family were going to rely on the community to help them come up with ways to "build for the next 50 years."

"She loved people and all the love is coming back, not just to Sylvia but her children and her children's children," said Van Woods.

Woods was successful during a time when blacks lacked basic civil rights because she was connected to her family, her community and had a relationship with God, said Sharpton.

Her mother showed faith in her by mortgaging her farm so that Woods could get enough money to start Sylvia's Restaurant.

Woods turned around and created a place for the community and gave back through a scholarship fund and support of the people trying to make things better for African-Americans. She also created a powerful legacy for her family.

"Our children need to know the Sylvia Woods story. It is the story of our children. It is amazing to me, the story from Hemingway to Harlem," said Sharpton as organ music filled in his words and mourners began shouting.

President Bill Clinton and Mayor Michael Bloomberg spoke about Woods at the Abyssinian Baptist Church Tuesday in a service that stretched more than three hours and was capped by a eulogy from Butts.

Afterwards, Woods' funeral procession wound through the streets of Central Harlem on a horse-drawn carriage, making stops at her former home, the Apollo Theater and her eponymous restaurant on Lenox Avenue where hundreds of supporters waited.

Woods' family will gather for one final service in her native Hemingway, S.C., Saturday.

The Rev. William Franklyn Richardson III, overseeing Wednesday's service for his father who was visiting Morocco, disabused anyone of the notion that Woods didn't deserve all of the attention she's been receiving.

"Maybe one day we will have a life where we will be worthy of having three funerals," said Richardson. "This isn't overdoing it. She's worth it."