Activist Rose McGee celebrates Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday by baking pies that bring her community together.

Julie Kendrick
January 30, 2020
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As she watched televised coverage of the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown Jr.—the young black man killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri—Rose McGee felt heartbreak, despair and a gnawing feeling that there was nothing she could do to help. Then the resident of Golden Valley, Minnesota, says she heard a voice telling her: "Go bake some pies and take them down there." Baking is second nature to McGee, who used to sell her signature sweet potato pies—which she calls "the sacred dessert of black culture"—at the Minneapolis Farmers Market. So she baked 30 pies, drove more than 500 miles to Ferguson and hand-delivered them to protesters. McGee recalls the reaction of one grieving pie recipient: first, the woman was skeptical; then, "She cried tears of joy."

Try the recipe for Rose's Sweet Potato Pie to taste it for yourself.

What She Did

Back in Golden Valley, McGee called up the mayor to discuss the healing power pie could have on her own community. And her annual "Sweet Potato Comfort Pie" event was born. The goal: build racial unity through giving and receiving pies. On the Saturday before Martin Luther King Jr. Day, McGee and 50-plus volunteers bake sweet potato pies—one for every year since Dr. King's birth. (This year they'll bake 91 pies.) The next day, she leads the community—a mix of students, civic groups, law enforcement officers and more—in small group discussions around race in which they determine who will get the honor of receiving a pie.

Sara Rubinstein

Why It's Cool

Past pie recipients have included firefighters, teachers, health care workers, members of racial justice organizations and mayors of St. Paul and Minneapolis. Scott Charlesworth-Seiler, a fourth-grade teacher in north Minneapolis, was gifted a pie in the middle of class. "Our school is primarily African American, so my students immediately understood that particular pie as a symbol of family and celebration," he says. McGee, who continues to hand-deliver pies across the country in response to incidents of racial violence, knows food is a great unifier. She says, "Creating, gathering and giving these pies away is a powerful experience."

This story originally appeared in EatingWell Magazine January/February 2020.