November 13, 2020
Black-Eyed Peas
Good Luck & Good Health
Black-eyed peas have been a staple in the diets of black people for centuries, providing a tasty source of protein, calcium, fiber, and vitamin A. Black-eyed peas originated in North Africa. They are related to the mung bean and were cultivated in China and India since ancient times, popular too among the Greeks and Romans who preferred them to chickpeas.[1] They were also called mogette, French for “nun” due to their appearance, as well as “cowpeas,” as the nutritious legume was a popular way to feed livestock.
Drawing of a black-eyed pea plant
Records show they were brought to the West Indies by enslaved West Africans as early as 1674, subsequently spreading to the U.S. where they became a staple primarily for animals and slaves. Thomas Jefferson, though, for example, was a fan and preferred them to English field peas. He wrote that they are a “very productive, excellent food for man and beast.”[2] An early Virginia cookbook also included a recipe for fired cakes made of mashed black-eyed peas, a delicacy that had been prepared by West Africans since the Middle Ages.[3]
Depiction of General William Sherman’s men raiding farms and plantations on their march south, 1864
Many of the traditions we now see surrounding the black-eyed pea stem from the Civil War era. It is commonly held that slaves, who already ate the food often, notably ate them with the passing of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, also signaling the New Year. Some, though, contend this superstition was already in the U.S., with the newly freed slaves furthering it, because in “a portion of the Talmud written around 500 A.D., it was Jewish custom at the time to eat black-eyed peas in celebration of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year… It is possible that the tradition arrived in America with Sephardic Jews, who first arrived in Georgia in the 1730s.”[4] Either way, the black eyed pea was further solidified in Southern culture with the story of General William Sherman’s March to the Sea in November of 1864 when they pillaged the Confederates' food supplies. Stories say black-eyed peas and salted pork were left untouched because Sherman and his troops believed they were for animal consumption. Southerners and the remaining slaves considered themselves lucky to be left with some supplies to help them survive through the winter and the New Year, and black-eyed peas thus evolved into a representation of good luck.[5]
Decades later, folk singer Ella Jenkins recalled how this tradition remained: “People had this feeling about good luck and black-eyed peas. So every New Year's Day, you must get your black-eyed peas.”[6] Scientist Owen Nichols (1929 - 2018) added: “The more black-eyed peas one would eat on New Year's Day, the more money one was supposed to get during that year… each pea represented a piece of money. And so, we would just eat as many black-eyed peas as we could get in our bodies (laughter), thinking we were gonna get more money that year.”[7] Greens also became a common additive, which represented green money. Art collector Paul Jones (1928 - 2010) described a popular way to prepare this: “With black-eyed peas… you'd get a bunch of greens, throw a sliced tomato over it, some onions over it, or you would've taken peppers and pour a bit of vinegar over 'em, and you've got pepper sauce, and you'd sauce it down. And you'd always throw a little strick of lean, strick of fat… into it.”[8]
Farming black-eyed peas, Fresno, California, 2011
Aside from a New Years’ tradition, the black-eyed pea was an everyday staple in many African American diets and became a primary ingredient in ever popular Soul Food. Former Meharry Medical College President Dr. Lloyd C. Elam (1928 - 2008) spoke to their nutritional value and affordable cost: “[During] the Great Depression… my parents [Ruth Davis Elam and Harry Elam]… bought a cow… bought some chickens and rabbits and, as I was a little boy, I thought these were pets… And then they were for dinner… So I stopped eating meat until I was twelve years old and it became kind of a problem at school… then that got encouraged because they could buy five cents' worth of black-eyed peas and that would be protein for me, for the whole week. Where everybody else was having to eat meat which cost (laughter) considerably more. So they encouraged that.”[9] Cowboy Alonzo Pettie (1910 - 2003) said that black-eyes peas were a favorite crop on his childhood farm in Texas: “We farmed every year, raised cotton, corn, peanuts, watermelon, sweet potatoes, Irish potatoes and black-eyed peas. Ah, we raised a lot of black-eyed peas… those black-eyed peas, he'd [his father, Jim Pettie] have a bunch of them.”[10] Painter Jack Whitten (1939 - 2018) recalled his father’s standard meal while working in the Muscoda Coal Mines of Bessemer, Alabama: “My mom [Annie Cunningham Whitten] had to make a dinner that he took. He had a metal box, that I remember… And when we say lunch, we're talking about a whole meal, ham hocks, collard greens, cornbread, black-eyed peas.”[11]
Hoppin’ John
Black-eyed peas are also a key part of the popular dish called Hoppin’ John. The first recipes for the dish “appear in cookbooks that date back to the 1840s, although the mixture of dried peas, rice and pork was made by Southern slaves long before then... The origins of the name ‘Hoppin’ John’ are slightly less clear. Some say an old, hobbled man called Hoppin’ John became known for selling peas and rice on the streets of Charleston [South Carolina]. Others say slave children hopped around the table in eager anticipation of the dish.[12] Federal district court judge Richard W. Roberts explained that in his family, “Hoppin' John was essentially black-eyed peas and rice for us… boiled in a big pot… mix it up together, and serve as Hoppin' John.”[13] Civil rights lawyer Stanley Tolliver, Sr. (1925 - 2011) described his take on the dish: “Chitterlings hoppin' john… you take some rice and you put it in a bowl, then you put black-eyed peas on top of that, then you put some chitterlings on top of all of it and you mix it with a spoon… I call it Chitterling Hoppin' John. But, you have to put hot sauce on it, and cornbread and buttermilk (laughter).”[14]
Black-eyed peas, greens, and ham hocks
In more recent times, black-eyed peas are still considered a favorite comfort food. Former Las Vegas casino executive Lorenzo Creighton described his favorite restaurant in his hometown of Waterloo, Iowa: “Cliff Smith… owned a business called Cliff's Supper Club… Cliff had actually come there in the '20s [1920s]… and he opened up a restaurant [and boardinghouse]. And his claim to fame was when African Americans came from other parts of the country… he would kind of stake you until you got on your feet and then you could pay him back… we'd eat… at his restaurant. And he had… good old down home food… the black-eyed peas and the ham hocks. And… everyone went to Cliff to hear the stories and to eat the food… he was kind of our historian.”[15] Broadcast journalist Darryl W. Dennard remembered when interviewing Sammy Davis, Jr. in 1988: “I actually interviewed him at Johnson [Publishing Company] headquarters [Chicago, Illinois], and so we had that black-eyed peas and chitterlings, and collard greens 'cause that's what he wanted when he came to talk to [HM] Mr. [John H.] Johnson.”[16] Dennard said of Johnson Publishing Company’s kitchen in general: “Every day it was fried chicken, and black-eyed peas, and candied yams, and collard greens, and cornbread. That's what we used to eat during lunch--smothered pork chops… the kitchen… knew how to throw down.”[17]
Layla Sewell cooking black-eyed peas and greens with her children, Los Angeles, California, January 1, 2020
Black-eye peas are the favorite of numerous HistoryMakers, including labor leader William Lucy, newspaper correspondent Francis Ward, Johnson Publishing founder John H. Johnson, Hampton University President William Harvey, television anchor Robin Robinson, and city commissioner Thelma Gibson. While in recent years it has increasingly appeared on the menus of gourmet and trendy restaurants, it will most likely remain a staple in the African American community. It has been the provider of nutrients and strength to enslaved people, a necessity in African American New Years’ celebrations, and contributed to widely loved Soul Food… the black-eyed pea is truly a culturally iconic food. 
[1] “Are black-eyed peas really peas?” Library of Congress Everyday Mysteries, accessed September 15, 2020.,by%20earliest%20records%20in%201674.
[2] “Blackeyed Peas,” Historic Jamestowne, last updated March 31, 2012, accessed September 15, 2020.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Andrea Lynn. “Black-Eyed Peas and Greens on New Year's Day,” The Spruce Eats, last edited December 11, 2019, accessed September 15, 2020.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ella Jenkins (The HistoryMakers A2002.133), interviewed by Larry Crowe, August 5, 2002, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 1, Ella Jenkins recalls growing up in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago.
[7] Owen Nichols (The HistoryMakers A2004.139), interviewed by Racine Tucker Hamilton, August 23, 2004, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 9, Owen Nichols remembers childhood holiday traditions.
[8] Paul Jones (The HistoryMakers A2003.195), interviewed by Jodi Merriday, August 16, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 2, Paul Jones talks about how his parents met and African American cooking and nutrition in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
[9] Dr. Lloyd C. Elam (The HistoryMakers A2007.089), interviewed by Larry Crowe, March 14, 2007, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 14, Dr. Lloyd C. Elam recalls his refusal to eat meat.
[10] Alonzo Pettie (The HistoryMakers A2002.120), interviewed by Larry Crowe, June 17, 2002, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 5, Alonzo Pettie remembers his father.
[11] Jack Whitten (The HistoryMakers A2016.033), interviewed by Harriette Cole, October 3, 2016, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 1, Jack Whitten describes his father's job as a coal miner.
[12] Stephanie Butler. “Hoppin’ John: A New Year’s Tradition,” History, last edited August 31, 2018, accessed September 15, 2020.
[13] The Honorable Richard W. Roberts (The HistoryMakers A2007.275), interviewed by Larry Crowe, September 28, 2007, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 2, The Honorable Richard W. Roberts describes the sights, sounds and smells of his childhood, pt. 2.
[14] Stanley Tolliver, Sr. (The HistoryMakers A2005.138), interviewed by Regennia Williams, June 16, 2005, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 2, Stanley Tolliver, Sr. lists his favorites.
[15] Lorenzo Creighton (The HistoryMakers A2007.122), interviewed by Denise Gines, April 4, 2007, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 2, Lorenzo Creighton describes the black business community in Waterloo, Iowa.
[16] Darryl W. Dennard (The HistoryMakers A2014.020), interviewed by Larry Crowe, January 23, 2014, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 6, story 2, Darryl Dennard remembers interviewing Sammy Davis at Johnson Publishing Company headquarters.
[17] Darryl W. Dennard (The HistoryMakers A2014.020), interviewed by Larry Crowe, January 23, 2014, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 6, story 2, Darryl Dennard remembers interviewing Sammy Davis at Johnson Publishing Company headquarters.
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