Southfield-based Beans & Cornbread owner Patrick Coleman re-created the shoebox lunches in 2018 to sell with some of his restaurant meals.

Southfield-based Beans & Cornbread owner Patrick Coleman re-created the shoebox lunches in 2018 to sell with some of his restaurant meals.

Photo provided by Patrick Coleman


Shoebox lunches, West Point memoir highlight living stories for Black History Month

By: Sherri Kolade | Southfield Sun | Published February 8, 2019

 Southfield resident Barbara Purifoy-Seldon, 75, shows a ball of cotton Feb. 5 at her home that she picked in Newton, Alabama, as a reminder of what her people have gone through.

Southfield resident Barbara Purifoy-Seldon, 75, shows a ball of cotton Feb. 5 at her home that she picked in Newton, Alabama, as a reminder of what her people have gone through.

Photo by Sherri Kolade

 Bloomfield Hills resident Clifford Worthy joined the U.S. Army and got his start at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in New York in 1949.

Bloomfield Hills resident Clifford Worthy joined the U.S. Army and got his start at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in New York in 1949.

Photo provided by Clifford Worthy

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SOUTHFIELD — She keeps a weathered ball of cotton that she picked in Newton, Alabama, in a plastic baggie and gingerly stows it away after her guests leave.

The rusted slave shackles with key inside, however, are ever present on a table in her den, among other personal effects from the slave era.

Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise,” along with “The Negro Motorist Green-Book” — which details establishments for black people to safely patronize while road-tripping in America because they weren’t welcome in places labeled “whites only” — are tucked away in another baggie for safekeeping.

Baubles and decorations from Asia, Europe and Africa grace her purposeful, split-level home.

Southfield resident Barbara Purifoy-Seldon, 75, keeps what she calls her “memories” close to her heart and throughout her home, displaying the struggles and successes of African-American history.

“When you forget your history, it repeats itself,” she said last week, surrounded by artifacts of some of the history she lived through. She keeps the cotton “here all of the time.”

“It lets me know and remember,” she said.

She also keeps a re-creation of a shoebox lunch — a cardboard box that carried the lunches of some African-American travelers, who would eat them on trains, in cars and on the road to thwart dangerous interactions at whites-only dining establishments during the Jim Crow era.

Purifoy-Seldon knows all about the shoebox lunch, although she grew up using another container.

“When we were kids, my mother used the brown paper bag,” she said of herself and her seven siblings. Her mother made chicken lunches with tea, milk or punch, and they would “take it on the road.”

Like many other families, they would travel from the North to the South and back, often visiting relatives’ houses to “bunk up” in the summer.

Purifoy-Seldon, Alabama born and Ecorse raised, is a history enthusiast and a friend to Southfield-based Beans & Cornbread owner Patrick Coleman, who re-created the shoebox lunches in 2018 to sell with some of his restaurant meals. He brought it back this year in time for Black History Month because it was such a hit.

Coleman — who was featured in local and national media for his homage to the shoebox lunches — said the idea to re-create them originated out of “just hearing stories.”

“With me being a restaurateur, I thought, ‘Why not come up with a shoebox that we could serve lunches in and sort of showcase a piece of history?’”

He said the shoebox lunches are “fascinating,” demonstrating the resilience and resourcefulness of people 60-70 years ago.

“They did what they had to do,” he said.

With the advent of the automobile, road trips became a big thing, Coleman said, and everyone wanted to take part.

“Everyone wanted to go on road trips — if you were a black American down in the South, going on road trips would be deadly.”

He said the shoeboxes were packed “out of necessity.”

Today, they’re “packed with award-winning soul-food history in a box,” and they’re decorated with historical African-American figures, he said.

Purifoy-Seldon said she moved north at 5 months old, when her father decided to take a $5-per-day job at Ford Motor Co. Her grandfather, a sharecropper in Alabama, decided to join the family because he was threatened to be lynched when people thought he was becoming too high and mighty.

“He sharecropped like the white man did — people came to his property to work. They thought he was getting too big,” she said, adding that today, people have the responsibility to make the next generations never forget what their parents went through.

“We must use their lessons as a backdrop to our future,” she said. “Don’t let anything prevent you from getting to your goals. Never lose your goals — the struggle doesn’t end.”

Bloomfield Hills resident Clifford Worthy must have heard that same message somewhere along the line. He didn’t let anything deter him from joining the U.S. Army and getting his start at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in New York one year after President Harry Truman integrated the military in 1948.

His memoir, “The Black Knight: An African-American Family’s Journey from West Point — A Life of Duty, Honor and Country,” details his experiences in the military.

Worthy, the great-grandson of slaves, was one of a handful of African-American men in his generation who was granted the opportunity to become what is colloquially known as a Black Knight of the Hudson, a traditional nickname for West Point cadets, according to a press release.

Worthy, who also served for a year in Vietnam, noted that in the late 1940s, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point was not open to most young African-American men.

Worthy said that during his time at the four-year institution, there were about 2,200 cadets, and only about 12 of those were black.

He said his book began as an idea about 35 years ago, and he said he’s glad that his book’s release date coincides with Black History Month.

“The timing is pretty good,” he said, adding that timing was on his side when he was allowed into West Point as well.

After graduating from high school at 16 years old, Worthy attended then-Wayne University. While there, he realized that his chances of getting into medical school were “pretty slim to none.”

“My folks could not afford to pay me through,” he said, adding that while at the school he saw a man dressed in a West Point uniform, and he was “curious.”

“I introduced myself, asked a bunch of questions,” he said. He applied to the academy, having no military background. “I wrote a letter to Congressman John Dingell — the father of the current John Dingell.”

Worthy said growing closer to God helped him get through the “harsh and difficult times” cadets face.

“I … didn’t know what to expect when I got there … academic and military — pretty rigid,” he said, but a Bible study group gave him comfort.

“That is where I started my spiritual life,” he said.

For more information, go to www.TheBlackKnightBook.com or www.beanscornbread.com.

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