November 19, 2021
An African American Tradition
Sweet potato pie
The holiday season is upon us with annual meals beginning next week on Thanksgiving. In African American households, holiday meals -- whether traditional or not -- are often topped off with a slice or two of sweet potato pie. Many even compete as to who can make the best one. 
Sweet potato pie recipe from What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking, by Abby Fisher, one of the first cookbooks published by a former slave, 1881
Originating in South America, possibly present-day Peru, sweet potatoes, known for their natural sweeter taste and a multitude of uses, became a more common staple during the sixteenth century when Spanish traders began exporting them to Western Europe and West Africa, although “the sweet spud was a complete dud to the West African palate. They didn’t like the sweet potato’s taste, disparagingly called it ‘the white man’s yam’, and focused primarily on eating the leaves... Western Europeans gave the sweet potato a sensational reception… Wealthy American colonial kitchens eagerly adopted the latest culinary trends out of England... enslaved African American cooks… it was through their expertise that sweet potato pie enters black culture.”[1]
Campfire baked sweet potato
Early on, sweet potatoes were eaten raw or baked in a fire by enslaved African Americans. Judge Edith J. Ingram (1942 - 2020), the first African American female judge in Georgia and the first African American female probate judge in the United States, remembered cooking them this way: “We used to bake sweet potatoes… in the fireplace… you'd part the ashes and put the sweet potatoes in there and cover them up and let them cook.”[2] Quilter Serena Strother Wilson (1934 - 2012) similarly recalled: “I like them raw or cooked but generally, when I was a child, we would wash them off and then we could just eat them raw… My grandmother had a fireplace and we could bake them in the hot ashes and coals in the fire. Or she would put them in the oven of the wood stove.”[3]
Left: George Washington Carver working in his lab, Tuskegee University, c. 1923
Right: Possibilities of the Sweet Potato in Macon County, Alabama, by George Washington Carver, 1910
Agricultural engineer Walter A. Hill described the sweet potato as: “a phenomenal crop… you can store it, you can… like [George Washington] Carver did… substitute it in wheat flour… and make some very delicious products as Carver proposed during the war [World War I] when wheat was becoming more scarce… And it’s easy for preparation… you can eat the leaves.[4] During his lifetime, Carver developed over 100 sweet potato-based products including sugar, molasses, tapioca, coffee, yeast, vinegar, paints, dyes, medicine, rubber compound, and synthetic cotton and silks.
Left: Original caption: “Part of 125,000 improved Puerto Rico sweet potato vines ready for planting by Alachua County Negro Farmers,” Alachua County, Florida, 1940
Right: Thirteen-year-old girl planting sweet potatoes, Olive Hill, North Carolina, 1939
Sweet potatoes became a staple on many farms. For former Cook County Commissioner Bobbie Steele, the memory of harvesting the crop was the best one: “I distinctly remember sweet potatoes… we used to have a big field of sweet potatoes. And my daddy… after the sweet potatoes were fully matured, he would plow… and we would go out and pick 'em up, and dust them off, and put 'em in a sack.”[5] Photojournalist Ovie Carter had similar memories: “During the fall my father [Grover Cleveland Carter, Sr.] would harvest sweet potatoes, and he would store them on the side of the house and put a tarp on… And throughout the winter we would eat from that pile.”[6] Educator and nurse Nancy Bowlin also shared: “My earliest childhood memory… My grandfather [Arthur Worghs] gave me a little piece of land and he says, ‘This is yours…’ He said I could plant anything that I wanted to and the first thing… I planted was sweet potatoes.”[7]
Eating around a bonfire, November 1941
As a staple food, sweet potatoes stayed on the menu during the Great Migration from rural areas to cities. Television reporter Barbara Boyd described her family’s typical Sunday dinner while growing up in the Chicago area: “Dinner… usually consisted of lamb or roast beef, rice and gravy, peas, sweet potatoes and three-layer jello for dessert.”[8] Camay Calloway Murphy recalled while growing up in New York City: “In the wintertime… somebody would steal sweet potatoes from the Italian grocer and we would… put 'em in the ashes and eat the hot sweet potatoes.”[9] Tuskegee Airman Alexander Jefferson told of growing up in a Polish neighborhood in Detroit, Michigan: “The kids my age, would make fires and we would roast potatoes, the Polish kids would bring white potatoes… I brought sweet potatoes. And after roasting sweet potatoes the kids took 'em home and the mothers and fathers… had to come over to find out what these things were. And we shared sweet potatoes and… the Polish brought… fantastic potato pancakes. And… my mother had plain old-fashioned cornbread and we exchanged foods… every now and then over the fence.”[10]
Left: Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and The Honorable John Lewis in a press conference, Montgomery, Alabama, undated
Right: Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. eating with his family at their home, undated
The late U.S. Congressman and Civil Rights leader John Lewis, when asked during his interview about his favorite food, without hesitation, answered, “my favorite food is sweet potato pie.”[11] His mentor, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., felt the same according to his sister-in-law Naomi King: “I talked to him on one occasion… I said, ‘Martin is there anything I can do for you?’ …I told you my mother [Bessie Barber Bailey] taught me how to cook and, and I didn't like to cook but I did it 'cause I had to. And he said, ‘Make me a sweet potato pie… Find out when Corrie's [Coretta] going to take the flight up in here and if you can make me a sweet potato pie.’ And I said, ‘Okay, I'll do that.’ And so I… find out when she was gonna be leaving, made the sweet potato pie, put it in a plastic container and took it over there for her to take it to… him… when I talked to him, I said, ‘You got your pie?’ He said, ‘Yeah, Nene I got my pie… It's delicious as always.’ And I said, ‘Well, I'm so glad Martin.’"[12]
Left: H. B. Barnum recording at RCA Records studio, Los Angeles, California, c. 1961
Right: Jazz musician and composer Neal Hefti, c. 1950s
Music producer H. B. Barnum remembered working with a musician whom he paid in pies: “When I decided that I was gonna play music… and came back to L.A…. [I] lost my money, I didn't have a real skill; all my music has been… self-taught… I was looking through Billboard magazine, and I called up three people… [jazz musician and composer] Neal Hefti was one… and he said, ‘Well, why should I help you?’ I said, ‘Well, 'cause I need to learn something and you're the best at what you do…’ He said, ‘Well, how much you gonna pay me?’ I say, ‘I ain't got no money.’ He said, "Well, what you gon’ give me for helping you?’ I said, ‘What do you want?’ He said, ‘Do you know where to get sweet potato pies?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ So… when I go to session, I'd have ten sweet potato pies with me, and he'd let me sit there and listen. And I learned how to… note the music down properly.”[13]
Louis Armstrong celebrating Thanksgiving with family and friends, 1964
While sweet potatoes are eaten year-round, they remain a holiday favorite for many. Documentary filmmaker Orlando Bagwell listed his Thanksgiving menu: “Turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes, macaroni and cheese, greens, string beans, sauerkraut, pies… mincemeat pie, pumpkin pie, sweet potato pie, coconut cake.”[14] The late federal district court judge Deborah A. Batts (1947 - 2020) shared her favorites: “My mother [Ruth Silas Batts] would make sometimes sweet potato pudding… [or] sweet potato pie, which she learned to make because my father [James A. Batts] loved sweet potato pies… and, of course, that is the pie to have… she also made fruitcakes. Now, I'm sure that they were delicious but… if there was sweet potato pie why fill yourself up with fruitcake.”[15] For psychologist Julia Reed Hare, the sweet potato pie was so good it ensnared the senses:  “The sweet potato pies… those women could cook pies that were so good you'd have to take off your shoes and wiggle your toes in order to enjoy them.”[16] Charles R. Jordan (1937 - 2014 ), the first African American elected to a political office in Portland, Oregon, told of a holiday tradition in his neighborhood in Longview, Texas: “But the beautiful part… during the Christmas holiday is the day before… people would all share… [I] remember mostly going from house to house that night… they would cut the sweet potato pie, they'd have one that they would cut on Christmas Eve… and you could go, just in that whole neighborhood… from house to house and people had something sweet to eat… It was a caring and sharing place and that's what you remember most, more than the dinner is the fact that Christmas Eve you could go next door and get a piece of potato pie.”[17]
Preparing a Thanksgiving meal, Zeagler Ranch, Walaka, Florida, c. 1970s
Walter J. Turnbull (1944 - 2007), founder and director of the Boys Choir of Harlem, recalled: “My grandma [Francis Turnbull] was a great cook… and I love sweet potato pie… And grandma took it out of the oven, and I wanted a piece. She said, ‘It has to cool.’ And I said, ‘But my momma [Lena Green Turnbull] never lets it cool,’ (laughter). I didn't really know that, but they laughed at me forever about the cooling of the sweet potato pie.”[18]Civic leader and nurse Mary "Betty" Brown told of how her mother prepared them: “You cook the sweet potatoes ahead of time and you peel them, but… They were still firm in the middle. Then she'd put them in a big pan and she'd slice a half of pound of butter and sugar and she'd rotate, and she put it in the oven and cook it for about an hour and it was like candied. It was decadent (laughter) to be sure.”[19] Carrie Camillo Tankard, former vice president of the Martha's Vineyard NAACP, described: “Sweet potato pie [is] the best smell on earth. My mother [Maggie Kornegay Camillo] made great sweet potato pies and so every time I make them, I think of home.”[20]
Woman and her daughter at the stove, undated
But many a cook have taken their secret ingredients with them to their graves. Judge Deborah A. Batts further commented on her favorite dish: “A couple of Thanksgivings ago… My mom had said that she wasn't going to make them anymore and I said, ‘We can't let this happen… You have to tell us… [or] show us how to make it.’ And we said that for years and years and years and she'd do the same old thing… ‘Well you take a bit of this and a dash of that...’ And I'm saying, ‘Are you talking about your pinch or my pinch… Could you just actually give me like universally known measurements?’ And, of course, she couldn't do that. So we decided that she was going to help us and… watch us and tell us what to do… it wasn't working. So finally at ten o'clock at night I was trying to follow these directions… my mother got so frustrated she said, ‘Move (laughter).’ She made the entire pie… And so I have never… to this day made a sweet potato pie and my time is running out. I'm getting nervous.”[21] Lawyer and political official Terri A. Sewell added: “All the things that my grandmother [Nell Gardner] used to do my mother [Nancy Gardner Sewell] now does. And I hope that it doesn't die in my generation. I can't make those sweet potatoes pies like my grandmother… that's something that's on my bucket list.”[22]
“Sweet Potato Pie,” by Mary Whyte, undated
The sweet potato holds a special place in African American culture, and as you prepare your holiday meals, we hope you make sweet memories of your own and ensure your delicious family recipes live on. 
[1] Adrian Miller. “How sweet potato pie became African Americans’ Thanksgiving dessert,” Washington Post, November 24, 2015, accessed November 15, 2021.
[2] The Honorable Edith Ingram (The HistoryMakers A2006.007), interviewed by Evelyn Pounds, January 25, 2006, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 2, The Honorable Edith Ingram describes her family's traditional foodways.
[3] Serena Strother Wilson (The HistoryMakers A2005.066), interviewed by Regennia Williams, March 16, 2005, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 5, Serena Williams recalls her maternal grandparents and farm life.
[4] Walter A. Hill (The HistoryMakers A2012.248), interviewed by Larry Crowe, December 15, 2012, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 5, story 6, Walter A. Hill talks about his research with sweet potatoes - part two.
[5] The Honorable Bobbie Steele (The HistoryMakers A2002.109), interviewed by Larry Crowe, July 1, 2002, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 11, Bobbie Steele describes the foods she ate as a youth.
[6] Ovie Carter (The HistoryMakers A2010.035), interviewed by Larry Crowe, May 26, 2010, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 2, Ovie Carter describes the sights, sounds and smells of growing up in Indianola, Mississippi.
[7] Nancy Bowlin (The HistoryMakers A2007.144), interviewed by Larry Crowe, April 17, 2007, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 10, Nancy Bowlin describes her earliest childhood memory.
[8] Barbara Boyd (The HistoryMakers A2000.006), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, July 11, 2000, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 1, Barbara Boyd remembers family outings to Chicago.
[9] Camay Calloway Murphy (The HistoryMakers A2003.225), interviewed by Larry Crowe, September 21, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 1, Camay Calloway Murphy recalls the sights, sounds, and smells growing up in New York, New York, pt. 1.
[10] Alexander Jefferson (The HistoryMakers A2007.192), interviewed by Denise Gines, June 29, 2007, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 10, Alexander Jefferson describes his neighborhood in Detroit, Michigan.
[11] The Honorable John Lewis (The HistoryMakers A2001.039), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, April 25, 2001, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 2, John Lewis's favorites.
[12] Naomi King (The HistoryMakers A2010.071), interviewed by Denise Gines, July 14, 2010, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 7, Naomi King recalls Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s commitment to nonviolence.
[13] H. B. Barnum (The HistoryMakers A2008.110), interviewed by Larry Crowe, September 16, 2008, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 6, story 4, H. B. Barnum remembers learning to write music arrangements.
[14] Orlando Bagwell (The HistoryMakers A2007.339), interviewed by Adrienne Jones, December 17, 2007, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 4, Orlando Bagwell remembers the holidays with his family.
[15] The Honorable Deborah A. Batts (The HistoryMakers A2007.239), interviewed by Adrienne Jones, August 15, 2007, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 3, The Honorable Deborah Batts describes her mother's cooking, pt. 1.
[16] Julia Reed Hare (The HistoryMakers A2004.040), interviewed by Loretta Henry, April 5, 2004, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 10, Julia Reed Hare describes the sights, sounds and smells of growing up in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
[17] Charles R. Jordan (The HistoryMakers A2004.167), interviewed by Racine Tucker Hamilton, September 20, 2004, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 8, Charles R. Jordan describes his childhood holidays and celebrations in Longview, Texas.
[18] Walter J. Turnbull (The HistoryMakers A2005.175), interviewed by Shawn Wilson, July 31, 2005, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 4, Walter J. Turnbull describes his father's family background.
[19] Mary "Betty" Brown (The HistoryMakers A2006.008), interviewed by Tracey Lewis, January 26, 2006, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 7, Mary "Betty" Brown describes the sights, sounds, and smells of her childhood.
[20] Carrie Camillo Tankard (The HistoryMakers A2005.145), interviewed by Robert Hayden, June 22, 2005, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 3, Carrie Camillo Tankard describes the sights, sound and smells of her childhood.
[21] The Honorable Deborah A. Batts (The HistoryMakers A2007.239), interviewed by Adrienne Jones, August 15, 2007, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 4, The Honorable Deborah Batts describes her mother's cooking, pt. 2.
[22] The Honorable Terri A. Sewell (The HistoryMakers A2017.096), interviewed by Denise Gines, May 5, 2017, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 12, The Honorable Terri A. Sewell describes the sights and sounds of her childhood.