Not all civil rights activists lead marches, sometimes their contributions are quiet and out of the spotlight. We talk a lot about the women who have the bullhorn in their hands and are leading the charge, but what about the women who work behind the scenes? The women whose contributions aren’t well known but are, nevertheless, important? Zephyr Wright was one of those women.
We’re giving Zephyr top billing on this one, but the family she worked for was intertwined with Zephyr’s life so tightly that we give First Lady Lady Bird Johnson (yes, and the rooster, LBJ) a bit of time in her spotlight.
We talk about Zephyr’s early life in Marshall, Texas, her education at Wiley College, and her transition to life as a cook for the Johnson family beginning in 1942. But “cook” doesn’t really describe who she was to Lady Bird, Lyndon, Lynda Bird, and Luci. She was a perfectly matched food creator, sure, but her job was so much more nuanced than that: she helped keep the house, tend to the children, be at the ready whatever time and with whoever Congressman Johnson came home with for dinner and she gave Congressman Johnson…then Senator Johnson, then Vice President Johnson…and, finally President Johnson a personal window into the life of people of color in the United States. She gave him a perspective that he then used to pass significant civil rights legislation. (Don’t fret, we tell the truths about this very…complicated man–both good and bad.)
We do also, talk a lot about food. Have some snacks at the ready, you might get hungry for Tex-Mex…maybe even peach ice cream if Mary Mallon’s story didn’t scare you away. (Recipe links are below.)
Time Travel with The History Chicks
Adrian Miller, author of The President’s Kitchen Cabinet, has a website dedicated to information adjacent to that in his book (and, well, yeah, things from his book which you should get your hands on anyway.)
The closest we’ll get to an autobiography: Zephyr Wright’s Official Oral History
You will find a lot, including a fairly easy to use database of all those interviews and diaries, at the Lyndon B. Johnson Library website, Discover LBJ.
From her hometown newspaper: Zephyr Wright, White House Cook, LBJ’s Conscience, and from a Marshall, Texas historian: Four Marshallites Roles in the Civil Rights Act of 1964.and about segregation in Marshall from Texas Monthly.
RECIPES! (Reading, reading…recipe!) You want that ice cream, don’t you? “Lady Bird Johnson’s” Peach Ice Cream., and popovers, and her Pedernales River Chili which may be a lessipe, we already know she used Rotel instead of plain tomatoes.
Lyndon Johnson wasn’t the most traditionally dignified of presidents, Atlantic article about womanizing, the Vietnam war, and more surprises from over 20 years ago. For some Good Johnson, here is a speech he gave to Congress in 1965 where he talks about race relations (video and transcript.) And for both Good and Bad Johnson, here is an article (with an offensive language warning) from MSNBC about him being both a civil rights hero and a racist.
Not our Zephyr, but here’s a blog from the daughter of a Zepher, Mariah’s Zepher,and Helen Williams obit that talks about her role in the Johnson house.
If you would like to take a dive into the origins of chili, maybe start with this article from Texas Monthly.
Why we said “Pedernales” the way we did…blame LBJ!
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