3: Freda Celeste Alexander De Knight (1909-1963) was born in Kansas, but grew up in South Dakota. Her father, Frederick, a steward on the Santa Fe, died shortly after her birth, and her mother, Eleanor, a nurse, took Freda and her sister, and moved in with her older brother, Paul Scott, in Mitchell, SD. (In the 1910 Census, her last name was read as “Alexandra.”)
Paul and his wife were caterers. They also farmed, and, according to Freda, produced their own chickens and dairy products, canned, and smoked their own meat. So, not surprisingly, Freda learned to cook from an early age. In the introduction to Freda’s cookbook (see below), Gertrude Blair wrote: “But young Freda was different–by the time she was five, she was able to bake her first loaf of bread, garnish plates, make biscuits and generally make herself useful.”
The Scotts moved on to Mason City, Iowa, where he died in 1951. Freda spent time in Mason City and St. Paul, and even attended the St. Mary’s Convent School in Salem, SD, but went back to Mitchell to study at Dakota Wesleyan College. She graduated with a degree in Home Economics. Freda then went to New York and studied at Columbia and NYU, and became a teacher and school counselor. Along the way, she met and wed Rene Edgar DeKnight (1913-2004), a jazz pianist.
In 1946, Freda joined the staff of the newly-founded Ebony magazine as a food columnist. That led to her 1948 classic cookbook, A Date with a Dish, which in later editions became The Ebony Cookbook. (I have the 1973 edition in my own library.)
She worked with recipes from across America, showing that black chefs weren’t just limited to traditional southern dishes. In the Preface to her “non-regional cookbook,” she wrote:
“It is a fallacy, long disproved, that Negro cooks, chefs, caterers and homemakers can adapt themselves only to the standard Southern dishes, such as fried chicken, greens, corn pone and hot breads. Like other Americans living in various sections of the country they have naturally shown a desire to become versatile in the preparation of any dish, whether it is Spanish, Italian, French, Balinese or East Indian in origin.”
Indeed, the book contains a wide variety of recipes, from a New England Oyster Stew to Opossum and Sweet Potatoes, from Down Home to Downright Fancy. It includes drawings of Freda’s cartoon muse, the “Little Brown Chef,” by Ebony‘s Art Director, Herbert Temple:
They’re cute. But they also make a statement. In the late 1940s and the 1950s, the white media still tended to portray African American cooks as Aunt Jemima mammies.
But Freda didn’t just stick with cooking. In 1957, she added fashion to her portfolio, establishing the Ebony Fashion Fair, and scouting models. She discovered Diahann Carroll, who went on to become a Broadway & TV star.
Freda (center), with President Kennedy, as part of the Ebony Fashion Fair.
In 1960, shortly after surgery for cancer, she went to a Paris fashion show in a wheelchair—which became her normal mode of transport in her last years, as she kept working as long as possible on the fashion fairs.
At the time of her death, William Barrow wrote in the Negro Digest that “Through her astute knowledge and brilliant use of food and fashion, Freda De Knight helped forge a new image for American Negro women… She was a titan of a lady, a rare and wonderful human being.”