#JimCrowed is when Black people are exploited by old, racist Jim Crow laws today. If you are Black and your land was stolen, you were #JimCrowed. If you are Black and your right to the truth is denied, you’ve been #JimCrowed. In honor of Black History Month, this special edition looks at an instance of Jim Crow and Black land ownership. Guest writer William T. Butler Jr., talks about challenges to his family’s North Carolina land.

Black American Gothic: Farm couple, Charles Freeman and Mary Freeman (late) wife.
Photo by William ‘Tommie’ Butler Jr., inspired by
‘American Gothic’ by Grant Wood. Photo taken, 2015, Hallsboro, NC.

Jim Crowed, By William T. Butler Jr.

We have all experienced at least one “Jim Crow” incident in our lives, one that left us thinking: “This is what our fore parents had to put up with.” One of those moments, happened to me recently when the Columbus County North Carolina Office of Taxation, decided to give away my grandparent’s rural homestead. Located in a part of coastal North Carolina, Ransom Township, the relatively small parcel of land had no liens, no unpaid taxes, and was not for sale. One day in 2018, it mysteriously disappeared off the books of Columbus County North Carolina Office of Taxation.

After the Great Depression

It might surprise you to learn how or why this could happen. First, let me tell you something about my late father, William T. Butler Sr. aka “Bud,” a family man and patriot living in the rural Cape Fear Region, by Lake Waccamaw, North Carolina in the late 1930s. After the Great Depression, he dropped out of North Carolina Agriculture and Technical State University to work at the local lumber mill to help support his parents and younger siblings. When World War II broke out, he enlisted in the Army to earn more money.

During his tour of duty, he served in combat with distinction in every major theater of battle from the Normandy Invasion to the liberation of Nazi concentration camps in Eastern Europe. Before leaving home, he had promised his siblings and parents to keep them safe and fed at home. Back again from Europe, my grandfather urged my father, to move up North, for the safety of his young family, wife, Vivian, and their first child, David, my older brother. When my father was a child, one of his mother’s nephews had been lynched by a white mob in their hometown. After returning home from the war, wearing his uniform decorated with valor medals, another cousin was lynched. The KKK White Supremacists had declared war on Black veterans!

Parent’s Wedding, 1945 From Left: Adeline Butler-Pugh (late, sister of my); Mary Butler (my father ‘s mother; William T. Butler (late, father); Vivian Murphy-Krease (late, mother); David
Krease (late, stepfather to my mother); Alice Murphy-Krease (late,
mother of my mother).
Photo by Maryellen Butler (late, sister of the father).
Location: Father’s Parents homestead in Randsome Township, NC.

Never missed a payment

So, my father settled in Brooklyn, New York in 1950 where I was born followed by my younger sisters, Valarie, and Aliya. My father continued to financially support his sisters, until they were each married and his parents until their deaths, all while he lived far from them in Brooklyn. Among the many things that my father drilled into our heads was his mantra: “Always pay your property taxes! It’s key to owning your land.” So, 53 years later, when named, Executor of his estate in 2003, I automatically and religiously paid the annual taxes on all our North Carolina properties. I never missed a payment.

It took me nearly ten years to settle the books before I could begin to focus on the old family homestead. One day I had the idea to find pictures of the old homestead online at Terraserver.com. I called the Columbus County North Carolina Office of Taxation because this required some very specific information: 1.) Associated Coordinates X (easting) and Y (northing); 2.) Location (RANSOM TWSP); 3.) Land Parcel Property No. (27875); 4.) Account No. (15-08080); and 5.) Patience. Handling local real estate transactions and paying Columbus County tax bills, I spoke with office staffers at least twice every year for the past for 17 years. Some of the personnel would recognize me and comment on my “out of town” voice.

Deed in my hand

When I called recently, I held a copy of our old homestead deed in my hand. The person on the other end of the phone said: “There’s no deed on file matching your inquiry.” I responded: “There must be a mistake. I have the deed in my hand. Better check again.” After a long hold, the representative came back to inform me that deed is now listed as owned by a couple living on Silverspoon Road, Tatum Township, North Carolina. Shocked, I had three questions: 1. How and when did they get ownership of my land? 2. What are the rules regarding conflicting tax collection? 3. What about refunds with compounded interest and penalties?

I exhaled for one moment

After another long hold, the voice on the other end of the phone said: “We’ve found the original deed registered by your grandparent’s in 1922.” I exhaled for one moment. But there were some problems, of course: 1. The original parcel demarcation is no longer discernible. An accurate calculation cannot be made. 2. I must submit newly updated deed at my expense. A new deed registry requires: a. Land Survey to calibrate exact property line coordinates. b. I will need to complete a new filing of an up-to-date deed with Columbus County Office of Taxation, and c. registration requires hiring a North Carolina licensed real estate law firm. The proposed alternative solution was to close the existing tax account. No refund was allowed.

Cutting his muscadine grapevine, Charles Freeman, 93, 1st cousin to William T. Butler Sr. (father) Photo was taken by William T. Butler Jr., 2015.

Black farmers and landowners

I took my complaint to the North Carolina Land Loss Prevention Project (LLPP) and they agreed to represent my case. Founded in 1982 by the North Carolina Association of Black Lawyers, this organization provides legal support and assistance to financially distressed and limited resource Black farmers and landowners in North Carolina.

Why share this story with you? Maybe you know something about my family, this part of North Carolina, and how land was measured and demarcated in the old days. If so, you may be able to help. Please share your collective old family memories, memorabilia, source materials, photos, and old stories. Your old photographs, letters or treasured memories may contain a missing piece to this family puzzle. I am asking you to help us save our land. Talk with the family elders, tell them what we are trying to accomplish. Get the word out across the country to family members, friends, neighbors, and allies.

Large family network

My initial target audience for this story was my large family network, especially those descended from one Jane Webb, born free in colonial era Northampton County Virginia in 1699.  She was the first person of color to take a slave owner to court in an effort to free her family.  Actual court records tell a fascinating story of this woman who took on the slavery system in colonial courts for ten years until finally reaching Virginia’s Supreme Court. She stood defiant, even public lashings, harassment, humiliations, and threat of death didn’t deter her. I believe my story should be important to everyone. This is a focus on hard-earned Black land ownership and how we have lost untold acres of land over the last century through tricky rules. Perhaps this happened to you! I want people to know, to feel, to believe that this land theft is happening now in 2019!

Mother with her aunts
Mother with her aunts & dog during summer break from Pratt Institute. Photo by Aunt Virginia Dare Murphy in NC

A Huckleberry Finn movie

Back in the old days, homes in rural America really didn’t have addresses.  Perhaps this is hard to believe but I witnessed this personally as a child.  Anyone that says different just doesn’t know what he or she is talking about.  I can remember when there were no streetlights, signs, paved roads, and house numbers. Most children ran around barefoot all summer. For me, it was like visiting a Huckleberry Finn movie every summer. Rural and urban people live very different lives. I once asked why there were no street signs or house numbers and the simple answer was: “Everybody knows where everybody lives.”  Land demarcations and measurements simply identified deed title.  That old pre-computerize recording system made possible what has happened in my case and has been used to rob lands from countless other people.

Needle in a haystack

In North Carolina, our land is a relatively small parcel surrounded in every direction by thousands of miles of vast lands both wooded and rural within a huge state. The difficulty of finding it is greater than searching for a needle in a haystack. The archaic recording process makes it even harder. I believe this is by design, no accident. Over time thousands of small parcels began to comprise vast large parcels in the hands of large land developers. Today, the old Klan methods of violence are wasteful and inefficient. Control of information is the more powerful way Jim Crow laws are employed–silent, cost-effective and far more permanent.

The really crazy thing

I don’t know how those names got on a new deed for my property. The Land Loss Prevention Project will handle it. I know I didn’t sell any land to those people. I think my unexpected call prematurely threw a wrench into their game. The calm way I responded was unexpected. I will not say that the whole town was in on it. But everyone knows that this has gone on for generations. The really crazy thing is everyone born and raised in this part of North Carolina are all related to each other whether they are Black, Indigenous, or White!  One way or another all these people have their neighbor’s blood on their hands and running through their veins. And the lynchings that have been documented will never equal those that are still unknown.

G-Grand Uncle Henry Freeman, brother of my grandmother, Mary Freeman Butler, 1800s

For you genealogists out there

Think about this story if you are descendants of Jane Webb who are spread near and far across this country and around the world. For you genealogists out there, the family names are: Willie Moseley, Ellen J. Moseley, Christian Webb, Henry Butler, Mary L. Butler (direct descendent of Jane Webb), Walter Mosley, and John Knowles. If you recognize any of these name(s) from your own family history research, please share. I can talk to you about my grandparents and their farm, as I regularly visited them for over sixty years. My deed description states “chain and stakes” measurements. I’m looking for equivalency of 1922 measurement to measurements used today.

This has truly been a learning experience for me. My lovely niece, Atiya Butler, my late brother David’s daughter, is our family historian and genealogist. Her dedication and insights fueled my deeper journey into our family history. My ancestors brought me thus far and likely the reason that I have no fear or doubt of a positive outcome. We can prove that it is possible to unite for the good of all. Let’s deny wrongful takers what they would take. Once this case is resolved, I’d like to invite everyone to stand with us by a plaque on our land that states simply: “The hardest challenges are the simple ones only you can accomplish.”

William ‘Tommie’ Butler Jr., (hat) with siblings and G-Grandmother on ancestral land in Columbus County, NC, 1957.

About the author: William T. Butler Jr. aka, Tommie, is a Brooklyn writer, gardener and stage production guru living in Atlanta, Ga.

Black families, Who’s minding your land down South? Do you know anyone whose land was sold from under them, without their knowledge? Please share your comments.












Godparents Day!


Happy Godparent’s Day! In the US, Godparents Day is celebrated on the first Sunday of June. I was thrilled to hear that this holiday existed. My Godparents were substitute parents for me. My primary Godmother, Aunt Sybil, was my mother’s oldest sister. She was my ‘other mother’ and teacher. She taught me about spirituality and about my Caribbean heritage. I owe her my appreciation for gardening and Diaspora cooking, especially Chinese Trinidad, Guyana food. She was my mentor, spiritual, personal, professional, and financial advisor throughout my whole life. I mentioned ‘primary’ Godmother, as I actually had another set of Godparents! Those included a paternal Protestant uncle and a maternal Buddhist/Catholic aunt (in photo above)! Godparents were also called ‘sponsors’ among some of my multicultural kinfolks.

However, Godparents can be a mixed bag. On the one hand, you have the film ‘The Godfather’ where the ‘family’ is a group of dysfunctional people with vendettas. Many of today’s modern families don’t name Godparents for their children. Some Godmothers and Godfathers lavish their Godchildren with money and gifts for every birthday and holiday imagined! Some Godparents are always available to babysit their Godchild. Some Godchildren show no appreciation for this tradition.

Becoming a Godparent: Godparenting is about religious responsibilities and being a support to the parents. An important point here is that in some cultures, you have the right and duty to stand up to the parent if they are not being good parents! Usually Godparents are asked to participate in the Christening and Baptism of a child and sometimes an adult. There are religious rites and duties for being a Godparent and a Godchild! Many people choose Godparents for their children to honor a friendship. Some people choose for financial reasons. It’s up to you to decided whether you accept this honored role. No matter the reason, being a Godparent is all about being a positive role model to a child. It’s also up to you to decide if you will choose a Godparent for your child. If you do, how will you decide who will make a good Godparent for your child?

Being a Godchild: I always took my role as a Goddaughter serious. I believe the basic rules: Be there! Show up in every way you can! I called and visited my Godmother often throughout my whole life. I became her daughter and right-hand person as much as I could until she transitioned. I also had adopted Godmothers from among neighbors and friend’s parents, especially during my teen years and young adulthood! It’s important for Godchildren to understand that it’s a relationship. They should remember their Godparent’s birthday, Christmas and more.

As a genealogist, I found important family history in religious documents such as Baptisms, Christenings, and Bible records. (The above document is my brother Sidney’s Baptism record in the Episcopal Church. He was also Baptized in a Catholic Church, as mentioned in blog post below.)These religious ceremony documents also provide needed legal value too! Here’s a related excerpt from my past blog post: “Many mothers delay naming their children,” said an NYC official who requested anonymity. As a genealogist trying to prove a client’s identity, my first thought was to go to church—in this case, the Roman Catholic Church.” To read more, click here.

How do you honor your Godparents? How did/would you choose a Godmother or Godfather for your child?


Finding Sojourner and Elizabeth

Sojourner Truth
Sojourner Truth’s former NYC residence in 1829.

Finding Sojourner Truth’s former residence at 74 Canal Street in New York City’s Chinatown was a fun find. She was a domestic worker and attended churches on John, Duane, and Church streets. The noted feminist also worked at a women’s shelter on Bowery, according to NY Historical Society records.

In honor of Women’s History month I chose to focus on two of my favorite New York women—Sojourner Truth and Elizabeth Jennings. The more I learned about these women the more I asked myself– Where are their biopics? And who would play them? The world needs their stories! As a Lower Manhattan resident, I feel proud that this community was once New York’s original black community. This is holy ground! The African Burial ground is nearby too. As a genealogist, I’m always digging in local archives and strolling through the neighborhood in search of African American and women’s history.

Sylvia Wong Lewis at Sojourner’s former Canal Street address, Chinatown, NYC.


Queen of reinvention

Sojourner would have been the queen of reinvention had she lived today! Born a slave in 1797 in upstate New York, Isabella Baumfree was the twelfth child of her enslaved parents James and Betsey. She went on to become America’s most famous abolitionist and women’s rights activist. Most of her siblings had been sold away by their Dutch enslavers. Like her father, she was over 6 feet tall. ‘Baumfree’ is a Low Dutch word for ‘tall tree.’ Sojourner, known as Belle, actually ‘freed’ herself at 32 years old. Friendly with local Quakers who abhorred slavery, Sojourner used her networking skills to move herself and one of her four babies to New York City in 1829. She lived in NYC fourteen years. But in 1843, at 46 years old, she got a ‘call from God’ to ‘go east.’ She woke up and reinvented herself again. She boarded a ferry to Connecticut, changed her name to Sojourner and became a traveling preacher. She also lived in Northampton, Massachusetts for many years. Sojourner finally moved to Michigan where she joined family members. Over a thousand people attended Sojourner’s funeral when she died at 86 years old.

You can view Sojourner’s famous image on display at the Met- NYC’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. The photo that she sold to earn money for her many human rights causes is emblazoned with her words: “I sell the shadow to support the substance.” To see the image, click here.

To learn more about Sojourner’s life in Ulster County, New York, click here

Surprisingly, both Sojourner and Elizabeth Jennings had famous public transit court cases 100 years before Rosa Parks was born!

Sojourner Books
Two books on Sojourner Truth to read.


Sojourner books to read

I picked two Sojourner books to read during Women’s History Month: A children’s book–Who Was Sojourner Truth? By Yona Zeldis McDonough, Penguin Young Readers Series and an adult book– Narratives of Sojourner Truth with ‘Book of Life’ and ‘A Memorial Chapter’ with an Introduction and Notes by Imani Perry; George Stade, Consulting Editorial Director, Barnes & Noble Classics, New York.

Sojourner dictated her ‘Narratives’ to feminist, abolitionist friend Olive Gilbert in 1850, whom she paid a fee for her services. This book was not an easy read as Gilbert inserted a lot of interpretive language. But it is full of amazing details. Sojourner explained why the horrific ‘unnatural’ acts that happened during her life in slavery are left out of her book. She crafted her own story and also kept a scrap book full of letters and news clippings, some of which is included in this “Narrative’ in a section called ‘Book of Life.’

Be surprised by lessor known facts

You will learn some differences between New York and Southern slavery. Mostly, you will be surprised by lesser known facts. For instance, I was shocked to learn that Sojourner was illiterate. Yet, her books, speeches, photo, and autograph were her bread and butter! Colorful details from her successful court cases and her dramatic and comedic testimonies would surely make an exciting film. Another surprising fact was that Dutch was her first language and that she spoke with a Dutch accent. The backstories to Sojourner’s famous quotes — “Ain’t I a Woman” and “What women want” are inspiring too.

Elizabeth Jennings

There are no books on Elizabeth Jennings. I learned about her during a Harlem church sermon. Elizabeth’s background was the opposite of Sojourner. Yet, their missions were the same. Both women were courageous and outrageous in their own way!

Jennings was rich, educated and born free during a time when most black folks were enslaved, illiterate and impoverished. Jennings is fairly known from her public transit court case. Although there is a street named for her in Lower Manhattan, few of my feminist colleagues have heard of Elizabeth Jennings.

Elizabeth Jennings Place, New York City
Elizabeth Jennings Place, New York City

Her wealthy father was apparently the ‘tailor to the stars’ and on the Board of the original Abyssinian Baptist Church. Close friends of Frederick Douglass, her parents were friends of successful white and colored entrepreneurs, politicians, skilled tradesmen and women and abolitionists. We rarely hear about New York’s earliest colored settlers and abolitionists like the Jennings. Mr. Jennings held a patent for renovating clothing and operated a very successful shop on Church Street. Elizabeth was privileged, educated, trained in music and worked as a teacher at a school for colored children.

Here’s an excerpt from my blog post archives about Elizabeth Jennings:

About 100 years before Rosa Parks, Elizabeth Jennings refused to get off a horse-drawn streetcar in New York. Think of Miss Jennings as a ‘Rosa Parks’ with a New York attitude.  Not only did the 24 year-old teacher and church organist refuse to get off the horse-drawn streetcar, but she fought the driver, conductor and policeman, reminded them of her rights, sued them and the transit company and won! To reach more, click here.

The most comprehensive source for information on Elizabeth Jennings is John H. Hewitt’s article, “The Search for Elizabeth Jennings, Heroine of a Sunday Afternoon in New York City,” which was published in the journal New York History, vol. 71, no. 4 (October 1990).
John Eastman’s reference book Who Lived Where: A Biographical Guide to Homes and Museums (New York: Facts on File, 1983), gives the following New York City places of residence for Sojourner Truth:
  • 73 Nassau Street (1829-30)
  • 177 Duane Street (1830-31)
  • Fourth Street, Franklin Street, Third Street (1830s)
Interestingly, he doesn’t mention Canal Street. The 74 Canal Street is included in this sketch of Truth included in MAAP: Mapping the African-American Past, a project of Teacher’s College at Columbia University.


Who are your favorite women who should be honored for Women’s History Month? Whose biopic would you like to see?

Holiday Reunion memories

Holiday reunions are coming. Are you ready for your crazy relatives? Back in the day, every weekend was a holiday reunion. The menu, script, and cast of characters were always set. There were always surprise guests and food items. Sometimes Dad’s Harlem-Southern and Mom’s Chinese West Indian folks would visit at the same time.

Aunt Jerri Smith w Miriam Hopkins, in 'Smiling Lieutenant,' 1931.
Aunt Jerri Smith w Miriam Hopkins, in ‘Smiling Lieutenant,’ 1931.

But today, because we recently recognized my Dad on Facebook for Veteran’s Day, I am still thinking about his people. Thanksgiving was a big holiday for them. They were part of America’s largest migration of Black folks from the Deep South to the North. Dad and his siblings performed ‘on the road’ in a family musical show from Mississippi, New Orleans, and many Chitlin’ Circuit venues all the way to Harlem. Their journey was documented in Harlem Renaissance news clips found during my extensive genealogy searches. Music, religion, food, and drama are my most vivid memories. We routinely gathered on Sundays after church at Grandmother’s house. Madame Tempy Stuart Smith or Mother, as she was called, was our Pentecostal matriarch. To her, folks were either ‘saints’ or ‘sinners.’

Drama genes: Scientific DNA proof that drama genes exist may still be unproven. But I’m sure Dad’s very intense family have strong drama genes! From the kitchen to the living room, basement, backyard porch, and dining table, there would be drama with this clan. Invariably, someone would say something. Drunk Uncle might quote the Bible. He would call out The Hussie and her daughter, Hoochie Girl as sinners. “They are not saved!” Family Peacemakers and ‘saints’ would rush in to quiet the gossip. Funny Elder Male Cousin would imitate an X-rated Red Fox’s comedy routine. Tap dancing, piano playing, and singing aunts, uncles and cousins would compete to showoff their skills. There would be multi-generational knee slapping, head shaking, laughter, arguing and applause. There would be tears too. Memories of many long gone or a new trauma would shift the mood. These intimate gatherings were loud, lively and could last for days. My parents, both classically trained musicians, inherited four pianos, leftover from grandmother’s music schools. Positioned in the front and back on three floors of our Brooklyn brownstone, our pianos were used by visiting artists to rehearse shows as well as by us for home entertainment. No TV or Internet folks! Live entertainment! Classical piano training and dance was mandatory in Dad’s family. We were all pupils, tutors, or teachers at grandmother’s music schools. Some of my family performed in Hollywood films and on Broadway with Cab Calloway and Sammy Davis Jr. Everyone could be called on to perform a dance step, play a concerto, recite a poem or sing along. My eldest cousin Sonny, a masterful pianist, Aunt Kaye’s son, tutored me on Beethoven Sonatas during these gatherings.



Cast of characters: Dad was the mellow one. Everyone else seemed to have fierce personalities. We often blamed our African, Cherokee and European Creole ancestors for their colorful behavior. Who was going to ‘show out’ this time? Did anybody care that some of us children were too sensitive to be exposed to them? No! Kids didn’t matter back then. My Brother Sidney and I both wondered if we were born into the wrong family. Fueled by our Chinese West Indian Mom’s teachings about Hindu and Buddhism, we would speculate about reincarnation and other spiritual forces. Were we here before? What if we were born during another era, as a different gender, race, nationality, or from another planet?

What planet did our Family Diva Queen, Aunt Kaye come from? She was one of my father’s three sisters. Making a grand entrance, like Lena Horn, Aunt Kaye often appeared with her ‘friend’ Aunt Dorothea. ‘Bull Dagger’ and ‘dyke’ were labels we heard in reference to Aunt Dorothea. But no one dared say that to her face. We loved and admired Dorothea’s magnificent contralto voice, especially singing Negro Spirituals. She was one of the world’s first dark-skinned African American opera singers who regularly toured Europe. Dorothea was a true Grand Diva. Off stage she wore tailored men’s suits and could knock back whiskey shots like a man. One day Miss Busy Body asked: ‘But, where’s cousin Sonny’s dad, Uncle Brigman, Aunt Kaye’s husband? ”Oh, him!” snapped Kaye. “He raped me! Folks would rolls their eyes. “Yes, he did. Twice, in Grants Tomb!” Aunt Kaye was known to exaggerate, faint and threaten suicide. As children, we were simultaneously distressed and amused by her.

Aunt Kaye with her mother Madame Tempy Stuart Smith
Aunt Kaye with her mother Madame Tempy Stuart Smith


After a few sips of her cocktail, Kaye would show out. She would go from poised, well-spoken Negro film star to full-blown crazy, finger-pointing, squinty-eyed, possessed lady. “What kind of family is this? None of you love me! When was the last time YOU called or YOU visited me? Not one birthday card from anybody! None of you care about me! Why don’t I just go and jump off the Brooklyn Bridge?” Under her breath, Sanctified Aunt said: ”Oh Lord, there she goes again with that fake madness! She should go on then. Do it! Spare us the drama!” Eventually, order would be restored. We would end up hugging and telling Aunt Kaye that we loved her—about a million times through the night! Thankfully, at these holiday reunions, food and festive beverages would be the featured attraction and distraction.

Holiday food: Our holiday feasts always paired traditional menus of Southern Creole and Caribbean food because of our mixed heritage. It was never just about turkey, collards greens and cornbread. The Thanksgiving soul food menu is quite diverse.

“There’s a wide repertoire of food. Everybody understands the iconic list of greens and pork chops and corn bread and sweet potato pie. But that is only a minor list of all of the different foods that people eat within their own communities,” says a researcher at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.” Click here to read more about our ancestors’ regional holiday foods.
Naturally, Christmas is huge in the Caribbean. Each island offers a unique style of cooking using regional ingredients.

“The fact is that no one celebrates Christmas with more verve and gusto than the folks in the Caribbean. From Puerto Rico to Guadeloupe to Jamaica, the holiday is a time for fun, family and food. Each island puts its own stamp on the season, but everywhere there’s rum and rejoicing — plus, the pigs are sacred!”

To learn more about Caribbean holidays traditions, click here for details.

Do you recall family drama or colorful characters from your holiday reunions?

Watch Night is part of genealogy search

Family History Month

Creole PrepFamily History Month is celebrated in October by genealogists worldwide. This is a perfect time to celebrate your food legacy. I learned so much about my Southern and Caribbean genealogy and culture through the food we ate at home.

Here are 3 ways to honor your family’s food legacy:

  1. Share memories of food you ate growing up. Don’t take your culinary traditions for granted. Be proud of all the crazy things you ate at home!
  2. Create a family cookbook by collecting recipes. Read or write about how food intersects with culture and history.
  3. Travel to your ancestral homeland to taste and witness your authentic roots. The land, waterways, air, plants, animals, fish, fowl, bugs, farms, gardens, environment and dietary habits of your people are all important parts to your history.

“Almost every family has a treasured recipe, beloved as much for the memories it evokes of family get-togethers or a special family member, as it is for its taste. Most families have many such recipes, handed down through generations, taught to children, or squirreled away on index cards or scraps of paper.” Click here for tips on how to create your own cookbook.

Cooking Genes: To start your food legacy journey, do some genealogy research first to learn about your cooking genes. Collect videos, blog posts, podcasts, news clips and photos to share with relatives. My father was a Creole baker via Mississippi and Louisiana. His pies are still legendary in our old Crown Heights, Brooklyn neighborhood. Although we are New Yorkers, the great migration brought our family North from the Deep South and the Caribbean via Africa and China.


A tiny newspaper announcement about my paternal great-grandfather’s award-winning ‘Creole’ onions confirmed stories about his farming/gardening genes in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. I also verified stories about his food business marketing genes from a classified ad in a local Louisiana newspaper. It listed my grandmother, Tempy Stuart Smith, as the contact for the sale of a cow from the family’s dairy farm. West Indian foods provoke fond memories from my maternal island relatives, especially – hot sauce, Dasheen greens, Callaloo, crab, king fish and a salt cod fish dish called Buljol, from the French brûle gueule, which means “burn mouth.”

Scary, weird food: Actually, a lot of our home food was scary and weird to us as kids. My brother Sidney recently recalled Callaloo as a “green swamp with crab claws crawling out from a tureen ready to attack.”  But he added that he loved eating it! A finicky eater, Sidney was bothered by pig parts, like tails, feet, ears or whole pig heads, especially eyeballs in the pots. Another memory he shared: “Uncle Louie’s ‘monster’ fish with big teeth that he caught off local NYC waterways! We survived eating contaminated fish!”  Certain foods still conjure fun memories about colorful characters in our family! By the way, check out my brother’s new podcast called Uncle Sidney.’ He’s a wonderful storyteller and sometimes includes family stories!

Creole food:  Whenever I see my brother Sidney I ask him: ”Did we really eat that or was I dreaming?” Those were the days when food was ‘real’! Ask any Southerner or Caribbean native about Creole food and you will get an earful of flavorful, down-home ingredients and preparations: onions, peppers, garlic, celery, tomatoes, greens, okras, yams, sugar cane, coconut, mangoes, limes, meats, seafood, spices, sauces and seasonings! Sometimes island recipe items are confusing—for example pimentos really mean allspice berries— not those red things in olives!

The basis of Creole cooking is the mirepoix, holy trinity, sofrito and other humble beginnings. To learn more, click here.
Creole food can be complex and simple. It can be any combination of African, Native, Caribbean, Chinese, Indian, French, Spanish, and Mediterranean elements. Sometimes it is simple country or Soul cooking with a French flair or straight-up Afro-Latino food!


Callalou and Gumbo are great examples of Creole food that I grew up eating. Both dishes—soup, stew, or braised 1-pot meals – tell Diaspora stories of slavery, freedom, migration, and immigration. Both of these dishes have okra in common. Both can also be a side dish or main course. Both can be vegan, or made by combining ham bones, pig tails, chicken, sausage, fish and seafood. While Callaloo is primarily green, gumbo can be green, red/orange or brown. I’m passionate about Creole cookery. I’m always exploring new recipes.

Here is a link for a Trinidad Callaloo recipe.

Here is a link for some Gumbo recipes.

What’s in your family food legacy? Do you have any scary, weird food memories to share?