Lecturer talks about the history of African-Americans in the food industry

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    From blackberries to biscuits, Dr. Rebecca Sharpless talked to attendees about the role of African-Americans in the food industry during a lecture on Monday.

    The discussion, called “Making a Way out of No Way: African-American Food Entrepreneurs,” was part of TCU Inclusiveness and Intercultural Service’s first Dinner and Dialogue.

    Sharpless walked attendees through the history of African-Americans in the food business. She started with the time of slavery – slaves gathered “wild supply” like blackberries to sell and keep a small profit. Sharpless then moved to the 20th century with successful business owners like Fort Worth native Lucille Bishop Smith, who served biscuits to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

    Sharpless focused on three African-American women in particular for their success in the food industry: Moby Fisher, Mildred Council and Lucille Bishop Smith.

    Fisher was the second African-American to publish a cookbook, which she dictated out loud because she couldn’t read or write.

    Council invested every dollar she had in a restaurant in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, which is still open and popular today.

    Sharpless then focused on Smith, a local entrepreneur who used the money earned from her successful catering business to serve the Forth Worth area. Smith donated her first $800 from her hot roll mix to her church. She also baked a fruitcake for each area soldier in the Vietnam War — a total of 330 fruitcakes.

    Despite historic limitations, food has always been a way for African-Americans to support themselves, said Sharpless.

    Sharpless said she was glad to give this talk during Black History Month and hoped attendees left with an “appreciation for the hard work of women who used their creativity and talents when they didn’t have a lot of other options.”

    Melinda Rubenkoenig, a member of the registrar staff, said she was amazed at the ingenuity of the entrepreneurs and their abilities to find ways to provide for their families.

    Abel Perez-Arita, a sophomore film-television-digital media major, said he learned that “food has a lot of layers of meaning and complexities that we can analyze deeper.”

    Sharpless is an associate history and geography professor at TCU. She also is on faculty in the women’s studies department. She is the author of “Cooking in Other Women’s Kitchens: Domestic Workers in the South, 1865-1960.” Sharpless is currently on sabbatical co-editing a volume on Texas women’s history.