November 25, 2021
Rooted in Tradition & Thankfulness
Taking the turkey out of the oven, c.1960s
Today is Thanksgiving, a day of communing with family and friends. The history of Thanksgiving is interesting in that it was not made an official national holiday until the height of the Civil War in 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation asking God to "commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife" and to "heal the wounds of the nation.” That proclamation marked the last Thursday in November as a day to give thanks. Through centuries of celebrations, this holiday has come to hold a special place in many of our childhood memories and family traditions, marking a day in which we gather, eat, and are thankful.
Thanksgiving dinner table
Automobile dealer Larry Brown talked of this mother and how she prepared for her Thanksgiving meal: “My mother [Mattie Lewis Brown] would cook all the food and make pies… seemed like she cooked for days in preparation for this holiday. I mean she would cook sweet potato pies and pound cakes, lemon meringue pies, upside down pineapple cakes and… the turkey and all the trimmings… some real good eating… during the holiday period. And she would just start cooking seemed like a week in advance, to have this big meal. So Thanksgiving without a doubt was big huge day for us.”[1] Actress Daphne Maxwell Reid also had great memories: “Thanksgivings… were wonderful… I remember being so happy when I could graduate from the kids' table to the grownup table… we had turkey, and we had sweet potato souffle, and stuffing… and my mother always burned green beans… She'd have my father cutting up apples to keep him out of the way. And he'd be making Waldorf salad. And my brother, when he got old enough, would make the ambrosia that my mother made with orange sections and coconut.”[2] Elementary school principal Sister Patricia Ralph recalled the cranberry sauce: “At Thanksgiving, my mother [Lila Mae Fleming Ralph] [would] always have the cranberry sauce from the can--and when my mother passed away, my sister took over with the Thanksgiving dinner… one day she came out with this gourmet cranberry sauce, and we were like, ‘Where's the sauce from the can?’ That's what we grew up with. And she was so upset with us because she thought she was trying to teach us something (laughs). We're like, 'naw, get the can.’"[3]
Left: Cooking meat in the ground, Alabama, c.1890s
Right: Carving roasted meat, Texas, c.1940s
Barbara Heineback, who worked on the press team for First Lady Rosalynn Carter, explained how the meat was prepared: “One of my fondest memories of the holiday season [was] when we would go south because I grew up… in New York… And when we would go for Thanksgiving… everyone came to grandmother's house on the farm. And she would go out and slay chickens and turkeys. And then the men would go to the woods and they would roast a roast suckling pig, sometimes two… they'd put this thing in the ground about… five, six p.m. in the evening… And the pig would be finished cooking… closer to eleven or noon… And the aunts and all had arrived with all the pies and what have you.”[4] Ramona Edelin, former CEO of the National Urban Coalition, remembered her grandfather's prayer at the dining room table: “Thanksgivings… that was the longest time my grandfather ever talked, was the prayer before dinner on Thanksgiving. When everybody was so hungry. (laughs) And it wasn't just our imagination. He did vest a lot in that Thanksgiving prayer. I loved it… But we'd be smelling those biscuits and rolls… And everybody would say, ‘Granddaddy you talk longer on Thanksgiving than any other time of the year (laughs).’”[5]
Thanksgiving Dinner, c.1950s
For media coach Harriette Cole, Thanksgiving was quite a production: “We would set the table the night before for Thanksgiving… with beautiful white linen tablecloths and napkins. And we learned how to iron these (laughing) which is quite a job and how to set the table properly, we would clean the silver… so all the preparation before the meal really making a beautiful table was a big part of the responsibility of the girls… there were certain glasses that we only used for Thanksgiving and Christmas and any of the few times that we had formal meals… we dressed formally, as well… we fixed our hair in a dressy way… we had to learn how to eat and not make a mess at the table, and as we grew up and we invited boys, they would have to wear a jacket, a shirt and a tie, or they were not invited to come to the table.”[6] For urologist Dr. Walter I. Delph, the day after Thanksgiving provided a time to gather with family and friends: “The big holiday was Thanksgiving, and I think it was my mom that said… we're not going to do this on Thanksgiving night 'cause everybody's with their family, we're going to do it on the Sunday after Thanksgiving. So everybody was available… everybody would come in, and I'd take their coats… and I'm ten years old… I don't know who these people were, but these were the royalty of the black world, coming through the door… Langston Hughes, a family friend. Adam Clayton PowellThurgood Marshall… having Thanksgiving dinner.”[7]
The Nat King Cole Show, which aired from 1956-1957 on NBC
Reverend Dr. Calvin O. Butts, who has served ably for over thirty years as pastor of the historic Abyssinian Baptist Church, recalled intense discussions ensuing at his family’s gathering: “Those were times of big eating, drinking, and very animated conversations generally around two major topics, politics and religion. It was there that I really got an education, at those gatherings, particularly Thanksgiving… people really got engaged… and the big thing with television was not football games or anything like that; it was seeing who black was appearing… I remember when Nat King Cole had his show… and people would get so excited because black people did have black folk on commercials… hearing about Roy Wilkins, and what people thought about what was going on with Adam Clayton Powell [Jr.], and of course the Civil Rights Movement, [Reverend Dr.] Martin Luther King, Jr., and what was happening with James Farmer and Stokely Carmichael [Kwame Toure] yelling black power… So those gatherings were big discussions.”[8]
Left: Detroit Lions vs. Green Bay Packers Thanksgiving Day game advertisement, November 23, 1961
Automobile dealer Larry Brown looked forward to the football games: “I would always remember [the Detroit] Lions would normally always win on Thanksgiving Day. And at the time they would always play the Green Bay Packers.”[9] Some even spent part of the day attending football games, including city parks administrator and community activist Lillie Mae Wesley (1921 - 2010) who would go to the big rival game between two local high schools: “Big game of the year was… that Thanksgiving game… [at] Dunbar's [High School, Texarkana, Texas] field… [or] Washington High's [Booker T. Washington High School, Texarkana, Arkansas] field, and that was a big celebration on Thanksgiving. Everybody went… Dunbar won quite a few of 'em… and then they'd have a big fight (laughter).”[10]
Wheatley High School (white uniforms) vs. Yates High School (red) playing before a packed stadium for the “Turkey Day Classic,” Houston, Texas, c.1950s
Similarly, in Houston, Texas, school superintendent Faye Beverly Bryant (1937 - 2020) remembered: “Wheatley [Phyllis Wheatley High School] and Yates [Jack Yates High School] played every Thanksgiving. It was just like… a Super Bowl in high school football, and there would be thousands of folks at the game… That was a given in Houston that every Thanksgiving, everybody from Third Ward and Fifth Ward were going to be at the stadium for the football game. And each school presented Miss Yates and Miss Wheatley.”[11] This annual game was also a favorite memory for chemist Albert N. Thompson, Jr.: “There used to be a big Thanksgiving game… for years [between Phyllis Wheatley and Jack Yates High Schools], and the reason they had to stop the Thanksgiving games because after integration, the play-offs had to occur before Thanksgiving. But we would get thirty-five thousand people in the stands and maybe another five or ten thousand just around the track.”[12] Football was also a part of cartoonist Morrie Turner’s (1923 – 2014) traditions: “Thanksgiving, it was huge once we all gathered… around the table. We just spent the day together… I remember we'd be out in the street playing football. There was no traffic… and you could play football and the kids in the whole neighborhood play… So then you played until time to eat.”[13]
Children in Detroit, Michigan, undated
Atlanta-based automobile dealer Gregory Baranco spoke of his childhood memories of giving to those in need: “My family ran an organization called the Good Samaritans [Baton Rouge, Louisiana] … so around Thanksgiving they would… collect clothes, food and everything for these families… and deliver them. Well I was young and… my dad said I want you to go on a delivery. And I never will forget the first delivery they pulled up to the house and they hollered, ‘Good Samaritans,’ and the kids would come running out… the kids were happy to get the bags. I had a bag of food to take in the house, well when I went inside the mother… told me with tears… how much she appreciated bringing it in there. And… from that point on, I never worried about the clothes and the toys as much, 'cause they didn't mean the same to me that they did to those kids… there're folks that need it more than you do.”[14]
Dining hall, Tuskegee University, c.1890s
Maxine Beatrice Baker, former President and CEO of the Freddie Mac Foundation, also spoke of learning early on that the Thanksgiving table was always open: “Every Thanksgiving we celebrated with an aunt… Beulah Burke. And she was one of the founders of the AKAs [Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority] at Howard University… she was never married, never had children and she would have this table that went all the way through the dining room… to the living room and there would probably be twenty people… that weren't relatives… and I do remember as a child, that really making an impact on me about, well why would you have people you don't know at your Thanksgiving table? And Aunt Beulah would say, ‘Well they don't have any place else to go…’ And so, I remember being taught very early about, we need to extend ourselves to others… that has resonated with me. There's always room at the table.”[15]
Left: H.B. Barnum, c.1950s
Right: Advertisement for H.B. Barnum’s Thanksgiving dinner, 2019
For music producer H.B. Barnum, Thanksgiving became an annual tradition that kept growing: “I came from the projects [Aliso Village, Los Angeles, California] … So when I got this house [in Hollywood Hills, Los Angeles, California], the first year for Thanksgiving, I said, ‘What can I do?’ You know, I'm so happy; I mean I'm just got such a blessing. I said, ‘I'm going to pick up my buddies…’ So, we sent three or four cars over and we brought back about twelve or thirteen people--had a lovely Thanksgiving dinner, and… that was '66 [1966]. Sixty-seven [1967], we went over--we must a brought back forty people… one year we had 105 people up here… and that continued for three or four years. And then in '81 [1981], the choir [LIFE Choir] was established, and so the choir took over the chores of doing all the cooking and everything. Up until that time I did all the cooking… Now, we're fortunate; we have people--help sponsor the dinner… We cooked 132 turkeys last year [2007] … and we served about 1400 people… the people we serve… some are homeless, some are seniors… Some are just people in the neighborhood… Some are artists, we have everybody from Lou Rawls to Pat Boone to [HistoryMaker] Billy Davis and [HistoryMaker] Marilyn McCoo, [HistoryMaker] Marla Gibbs, Frank Sinatra… who have just stopped by on Thanksgiving and sang a song or just served food… The Mormons send us about twenty missionary kids to help serve, we have some of the gangs that send their gang members to come serve… they wear their red and they wear their blue, and there is no trouble.”[16]
“Blessings,” by John Holyfield
However you spend your Thanksgiving this year, we hope that you will share the sentiment expressed by Bernard J. Tyson (1959 - 2019), the first African American CEO of Kaiser Permanente, when he said: “Of all the holidays… Thanksgiving is the most important one to me… it is just the time to be thankful, no matter what.”[17]

Let's all be thankful.
[1] Larry Brown (The HistoryMakers A2005.193), interviewed by Larry Crowe, August 10, 2005, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 4, Larry Brown remembers Thanksgiving celebrations in Detroit, Michigan.
[2] Daphne Maxwell Reid (The HistoryMakers A2004.103), interviewed by Racine Tucker Hamilton, October 12, 2004, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 2, tape 1, story 11, Daphne Maxwell Reid describes special occasions during her childhood.
[3] Sister Patricia Ralph (The HistoryMakers A2004.049), interviewed by Racine Tucker Hamilton, May 17, 2004, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 7, Patricia Ralph recalls her childhood environs.
[4] Barbara Heineback (The HistoryMakers A2005.181), interviewed by Jodi Merriday, August 2, 2005, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 7, Barbara Heineback recalls holidays with her family in Georgia.
[5] Ramona Edelin (The HistoryMakers A2003.153), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, July 14, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 5, Ramona Edelin talks about her earliest memories as a child.
[6] Harriette Cole (The HistoryMakers A2006.131), interviewed by Denise Gines, November 7, 2006, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 1, Harriette Cole describes her family's preparations for Christmas and Thanksgiving, pt. 1.
[7] Dr. Walter I. Delph (The HistoryMakers A2007.170), interviewed by Adrienne Jones, April 27, 2007, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 2, Dr. Walter I. Delph recalls his home life.
[8] Reverend Dr. Calvin O. Butts (The HistoryMakers A2005.036), interviewed by Racine Tucker Hamilton, February 1, 2005, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 7, Reverend Dr. Calvin O. Butts recalls family discussions as a child, pt.1.
[9] Larry Brown (The HistoryMakers A2005.193), session 1, tape 2, story 4.
[10] Lillie Mae Wesley (The HistoryMakers A2002.206), interviewed by Larry Crowe, November 20, 2002, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 14, Lillie Mae Wesley describes the rivalry between Dunbar High School in Texarkana, Texas and Booker T. Washington High School in Texarkana, Arkansas.
[11] Faye Beverly Bryant (The HistoryMakers A2008.043), interviewed by Denise Gines, March 11, 2008, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 6, Faye Beverly Bryant describes her high school rivalry with Jack Yates Senior High School.
[12] Albert N. Thompson, Jr. (The HistoryMakers A2012.072), interviewed by Larry Crowe, March 20, 2012, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 4, Albert Thompson, Jr. discusses different junior high schools and high schools in Houston, Texas.
[13] Morrie Turner (The HistoryMakers A2004.041), interviewed by Loretta Henry, April 6, 2004, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 7, Morrie Turner shares childhood memories.
[14] Gregory Baranco (The HistoryMakers A2016.049), interviewed by Larry Crowe, October 3, 2016, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 3, Gregory Baranco remembers his early sense of responsibility.
[15] Maxine Beatrice Baker (The HistoryMakers A2005.057), interviewed by Racine Tucker Hamilton, March 1, 2005, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 2, Maxine Beatrice Baker remembers holidays in Washington, D.C., pt. 1.
[16] H. B. Barnum (The HistoryMakers A2008.110), interviewed by Larry Crowe, September 16, 2008, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 5, story 7, H. B. Barnum talks about his annual Thanksgiving dinner.
[17] Bernard J. Tyson (The HistoryMakers A2015.005), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, December 17, 2015, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 3, Bernard J. Tyson describes his childhood home.