Her Iconic Restaurant Helped Keep Black Southern Traditions Alive

staff at a legendary soul food restaurant sylvia's in harlem new york
Zain Murdock
June 29, 2023

After the Great Migration had drawn her mother up to New York from South Carolina, 18-year-old Sylvia Woods joined her in the 1940s, eventually waitressing at a lunch counter in Harlem. Nearly ten years later, she took a chance and bought it for $20,000. 

Woods renamed the restaurant Sylvia’s. And she was named the Queen of Soul Food.

From black-eyed peas and ribs, to peach cobbler and sweet potato pie, the commitment restaurants like Sylvia’s had to ‘down-home’ cooking also helped preserve and share Black Southern cultural traditions.

Southerners could feel like they were back home. Fellow restauranteur Alexander Smalls recalled how it felt like a “pilgrimage.” And that warmth of familiarity blended with the warmth of Woods herself, who customers remembered for her kind greetings and hugs.

By the time Woods fully passed the torch to her children and grandchildren at 80, the business had expanded colossally. She had her own line of soul food products and cookbooks. She attracted guests like Cicely Tyson, Muhammad Ali, and Nelson Mandela. 

The chance Woods took on Sylvia’s did more than pay off. It was iconic.

It also proved that no matter where we go or what we endure, we will always bring our culture with us. And from passing down old traditions to creating new ones, our communities will only continue to grow.