21: The sweet potato is a standard item on the “soul food” menu. Yet its history and use is complicated. Sweet potatoes, white potatoes, and African yams are not related, yet the names are nearly interchangeable. Southerners, black and white alike, often called them “taters,” as in the classic “Possum & Taters” beloved by Franklin D. Roosevelt. But today, our “tater tots” are made from white potatoes.
“Potato” derives from the Caribbean Taíno word for sweet potato, batata. (White potatoes came from the Andes; the Quechua word for them was papas). Meanwhile, the Wolof African word we translate as “yam” is now used here for sweet potatoes. Many grocery stores carry “yams” and “sweet potatoes,” but in the United States, they’re both just varieties of sweet potatoes.
Our “yams” are part of the morning glory family, and have nothing to do with true African yams, but for slaves coming to America from the yam belt (think of Benin-Nigeria-Cameroon), where the true yam was (and is) a staple food, the sweet potato was as close as they were going to get. Slave ships coming from that region carried huge amounts of yams, as many as 200 yams per person.
Both sweet and white potatoes are New World foods, but they came to the U.S. by way of Europe. (For a long time, white potatoes were called “Irish potatoes.”) Candied yams are a Thanksgiving staple across the country. My mom made the best ones I’ve ever had. Yet, as Adrian Miller has shown, candied yams developed out of European carrot recipes.
My candied “yams” with pecans
In England, in 1597, John Gerard described the sweet potato and discussed various ways of cooking it (see below). Shakespeare’s Falstaff mentions it in The Merry Wives of Windsor (1602). It appears that Henry VIII ate a lot of sweet potatoes, perhaps because it was believed to be an aphrodisiac.
Besides comparisons to African (true) yams and carrots, I’ve also found that it’s easy to make a sweet potato pie that’s indistinguishable from the pumpkin pies beloved in the northern states. Confused? Adrian Miller devotes a whole chapter of his book Soul Food to the history of the sweet potato. You should read it. I’ll wait……
When I think of sweet potatoes, I think of Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955). Mary McLeod was born in 1875 in the little town of Mayesville, South Carolina, about 50 miles east of Columbia, and was the 15th of 17 kids. Her parents had been enslaved, and all of her siblings born before emancipation had been taken away and sold.
Two of Mary’s sisters, standing in front of the Mayesville cabin where she was born. (State Archives of Florida)
Mary was determined to learn to read, and walked 4 miles one way each day to a Presbyterian mission school for black children. She later attended Scotia Seminary, in Concord, NC. Scotia (now Barber-Scotia College) was a higher education institution for African American women, preparing them for careers in social work and teaching. She also attended Moody Bible Institute, in Chicago.
Mary as a young woman; I don’t know the date
After teaching and doing social work for several years, Mary married Albertus Bethune, and moved to Florida, where, in 1904, she opened a mission school for girls in Daytona Beach. (The school ultimately grew into Bethune-Cookman Univ., a HBCU affiliated with the United Methodist Church).
Mary with her students, Daytona Beach, c.1905
Mary was a good fundraiser. She had a knack for courting wealthy white patrons. In 1905, she received $62,000 from John D. Rockefeller. In today’s dollars, that would be worth about $1.7 million. In the early days, however, Mary also raised money for the school by selling sweet potato pies. The recipe has become one of my favorites:
One of my Bethune recipe pies for Christmas 2013
Mary was involved in more than education. In 1920, she raised the money for the poll taxes, set up a night school to tutor people for the literacy test, and got a hundred African Americans registered to vote. The night before the election, 80 KKK members warned her to stop it, but she faced them down. They left, and the next day, Mary led her new voters to the polls.
Mary in the 1920s
Mary was gaining a national reputation. Presidents Coolidge and Hoover both sought her advice. She became a close friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, and formed the “Black Cabinet” that advised FDR on issues. When she left the Republican Party, thousands joined her, helping establish the strong connection between African Americans and the Democratic Party that continues to the present.
Mary was also one of the NAACP’s representatives—and the only black woman—at the founding of the United Nations in 1945. And here, it’s appropriate to mention that in the 1930s, as President of the Association for the Study of African American Life & History, Mary worked with Carter Woodson in his efforts to establish Negro History Week, now Black History Month.
When Mary visited the White House in 1950, a white guard addressed her as “auntie” instead of Mrs. She stopped and asked in a most sincere tone, “Which one of my brothers’ children are you?”