Sylvia Woods lauded as humble trailblazer at Mt. Vernon funeral

Bedelia Woods leaves Grace Baptist Church in Mount Bedelia Woods leaves Grace Baptist Church in Mount Vernon after the funeral service for her mother, restaurateur and Harlem icon Sylvia Woods. (July 25, 2012) Photo Credit: Leslie Barbaro

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"Soul food queen" Sylvia Woods was remembered Wednesday as a woman of humble beginnings with a vibrant spirit whose kitchen was a gathering place for New York's civil rights movement and a whistle-stop for the political elite.

"Our children need to know that God can take a woman from South Carolina ... wrap an apron around her and lift her up to where governors would stand in line," thundered the Rev. Al Sharpton as he eulogized the trailblazer during a service at Grace Baptist Church in Mount Vernon.

Woods, who opened the landmark Harlem restaurant that bears her name in 1962, died July 19 at age 86 at her Mount Vernon home after battling Alzheimer's disease.

Hundreds waited in line outside the church in her hometown to attend the 11 a.m. service -- waitresses, distant cousins, dignitaries and the many people Woods touched in life. Her body lay at rest in a cream-colored brocade suit in a casket ringed by arrangements of white calla lilies and roses.

Politicians and civil rights leaders including former New York City Mayor David Dinkins, former Gov. David Paterson and Yonkers Mayor Ernest Davis, shared stories of how the modest woman with big glasses inspired them.

"Every protest, every plan, every law started with a breakfast or lunch at Sylvia's," recalled Paterson, a longtime patron of the restaurant.

"We had to eat before we went to jail," quipped NAACP New York State Conference president Hazel Dukes.

The Rev. William Franklyn Richardson III, associate pastor at the church and the officiant at Wednesday's memorial, asked the mourners "to live the legacy that Sylvia left us."

"She fed the hungry. She clothed the negligent. She gave up herself for us," he said of Woods.

The church came alive with clapping, shouts and cheers as Sharpton delivered an impassioned eulogy stressing the importance of sharing Woods' struggle as an example to future generations.

"To understand the depth of this woman, you've got to first understand the history of soul food," said Sharpton, the founder of the National Action Network. "Soul food was the staple that was the survival kit of people who couldn't sleep."

Even presidents lined up at Sylvia's, a favorite stop for former President Bill Clinton, who attended her Harlem service, and President Barack Obama, who campaigned there.

Despite her fame, Woods was most remembered because she was a woman who made time for everyone.

Michelle Caldron, who worked as a waitress at Sylvia's for a decade, said Woods inspired and encouraged her to use the job as a stepping-stone to a new career.

"I learned quite a few life lessons there," recalled Caldron, who is now pursuing a marketing career.

Woods was born Sylvia Pressley to a farming family in Hemingway, S.C., on Feb. 2, 1926. At age 11, she met her future husband, Herbert Woods, while they picked beans after school.

They were married in 1944 and moved to New York. He worked as a truck driver while she waitressed at Johnson's Luncheonette, which she and her husband bought in 1962 and renamed Sylvia's. He died that same year.

The restaurant started out with a few booths and a six-stool counter. It expanded into several dining rooms and a catering hall during the years, but the counter remained.

"I watched Sylvia's grow from a counter to a global sightseeing place," Sharpton said. "What bothers me is how we are often cavalier and often so easy to dismiss such a hard journey."

A third service for Woods will take place in Hemingway, where she will be buried Saturday.

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