Rose McGee reminds me of that quote from tennis legend Arthur Ashe. “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.”
Rose calls sweet potato pie “the sacred desert of black culture.” She grew up with her grandmother and great-grandmother in Jackson, Tennessee. As an adult, Rose decided that she wanted to make sweet potato pie. She called her grandmother and got the recipe. “Nothing was written down,” she says. “It was a pinch of this and a handful of that.”
Rose’s first experiments with making sweet potato pie did not turn out. But she kept baking. Soon, friends were requesting her pies. And after a while, she had a small business. She would sell her pies at flea markets and other events. She soon learned just how important sweet potato pie can be. Some refused to try her pies. “No, I only eat my own pies.” While others would be drawn to the pies. “This reminds me of my grandmother,” they would tell her.
Rose realized, “I was getting more satisfaction out of how people were feeling, more so than selling the pies.” While she enjoyed the experience of baking pies, pie baking was not a sustainable business. “Lord knows I was not making money.” So, she shut down her pie-making business. But a couple of years later, an incident sent Rose back to the kitchen, baking sweet potato pies.
On August 9, 2014, Michael Brown was shot by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. This incident brought long-simmering issues to the surface. Protests broke out, some peaceful and some violent. Rose was at home watching the news of Ferguson from her home in Golden Valley, Minnesota. Rose thought, “This is awful. I have to do something.” Instinctively, she went into the kitchen and made sweet potato pies. She did not stop until she had 30 pies.
She called a church pastor in Ferguson and arranged to bring the pies. Rose and her son loaded the pies into the trunk of her car and drove to Ferguson. When they arrived, much of the initial turmoil had ended. They drove to the makeshift memorial for Michael Brown. There, Rose encountered a woman in her early twenties. Rose says that the woman was “fussing at” Michael. “Why would you do that?” the young woman cried out in grief.
Rose approached the young woman and asked if she would accept a sweet potato pie. “I just wanted to do something for her,” Rose recalls. Once the young woman realized that Rose had come all the way from Minnesota with the pies, she accepted. This was the pattern with Rose. She did not foist her pie on others. “I would ask if they would do me the honor of accepting it.”
Rose gave away all 30 pies. Each pie had a unique story. For example, one woman accepted the pie as a sign that her mother was watching over her. The woman cradled the pie and rocked back and forth, refusing to eat it.
Being in Ferguson brought a new sense of urgency to Rose to deal with the complex issues of culture and race relationships. These are not simple issues. They require nuanced conversations. “I recognize the complexity of creating the desert, which tends to run metaphorically with the complexity of the issues we’re dealing with in society,” she says. She began to think of sweet potato pie as “a catalyst for caring and building community.”
When Rose returned home to Golden Valley, Minnesota, she approached the mayor with an idea. She wanted to bring the community together to discuss culture and race. The mayor agreed. They held an event on Martin Luther King Day in January 2015.
This was not the last time that Rose would bake pies that facilitated dialog. She brought pies to Precinct 4 in North Minneapolis after the shooting of Jamar Clark. She took pies to the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. She even took pies to Standing Rock.
By the summer of 2016, Rose realized that she needed to focus. So many tragedies happened back to back: Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando; flooding in Baton Rouge; and the shooting of a police officer in Dallas. She is currently planning how to take Sweet Potato Comfort Pie forward. If you want to learn more about Sweet Potato Comfort Pie, you can connect through their Facebook page.
Social Entrepreneurship Quotes from Rose McGee
“I consider it to be the sacred dessert of black culture.”
“It’s healing and nurturing when people step up and respond to the community.”
Social Entrepreneurship Resources:
- Sweet Potato Comfort Pies on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/SweetPotatoComfortPies/
- Golden Valley Community Foundation: http://gvcfoundation.org