33: Lucille Bishop Smith (1892-1985). I first learned about Lucille from Toni Tipton-Martin’s The Jemima Code blog. About the same time that Quaker Oats was cranking out this sort of demeaning stuff…
…Lucille Smith was showing what a real person could do; in this case, not with pancakes, but a hot biscuit mix.
Lucille was born in Crockett, Texas, roughly halfway between Houston and Dallas. She attended several colleges, and ultimately graduated from Samuel Huston College, a Methodist HBCU (now Huston-Tillotson Univ.) in Auston. She married Ulysses S. (U.S.) Smith (1888-1956), and the couple settled in Fort Worth. Lucille sewed, and the two of them built up a catering business. U.S., for his part, became known as the “Barbecue King of the Southwest.”
In 1927, Lucille was named coordinator of Fort Worth’s vocational education program, training young African Americans for domestic service. That led in 1937 to a comparable position at Prairie View A&M, an HBCU northwest of Houston. She did two stints at Prairie View, and in 1952, she established one of the nation’s first college-level commercial food & technology programs.
Meanwhile, in 1941, she published a cookbook, which was a boxed set of recipe cards, “Lucille’s Treasure Chest of Fine Foods.” (Today, it’s a hard-to-find collectible).
A few years later, she developed Lucille’s All Purpose Hot Roll Mix for a church fundraiser, the first such mix marketed in the U.S. It was an immediate hit. In the first month alone, she was able to donate $800 in profits to her church, St. Andrew’s United Methodist Church, in Fort Worth. In 2016 dollars, that’s the equivalent of about $10,000.
Soon, she was selling 200 cases a week from a general store across the street from her husband’s barbecue restaurant. Her entrepreneurial success led her to become the first African American woman to join the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce.
Apart from her biscuit mix, Lucille’s signature dish was her chili biscuits, which were served on American Airlines flights, and in Lyndon Johnson’s White House. Heavyweight boxing champ Joe Louis was a particular fan of Lucille’s hot rolls.
(“The Brown Bomber,” Joe Louis, center.)
In 1965, Lucille made a fruitcake for each of Tarrant County’s 330 troops serving in Vietnam, and in gratitude, in 1966 Fort Worth proclaimed a Lucille B. Smith Day in her honor.
Lucille was active in fundraising, and worked to improve the slums. In 1969, she was named to the Governor’s Commission on the Status of Women. Even in her 80s, she remained active in the family business, and lived to the ripe old age of 92. And believe it or not, we’ve only scratched the surface of her career.
Lucille’s great-grandson, Chris Williams, has opened Lucille’s, in Houston, named in her honor. Though he is a European-trained chef, he still relies on Lucille’s boxed recipes, and serves her chili biscuits, shown here.