Wednesday morning is quiet on the Spelman College campus—right up until 11:50 a.m., when classes let out. Students rush to get to the dining hall, where two lines snake around the cafeteria and spill out the doors. Elsewhere it’s just any old weekday, but at Spelman it’s a special occasion: It’s Fried Chicken Wednesday.
The tradition has cemented itself not just at Atlanta’s historically Black colleges and universities, but at HBCUs around the South, from Florida A&M to Howard University. At Spelman, fried chicken is the centerpiece, but there’s plenty even for pescatarians like Nia Hipps, who goes straight for the sides: creamy mac and cheese, collard greens, rice, black-eyed peas, cornbread, and—last but not least—peach cobbler. “I always make sure to grab some mac and cheese and greens along with whatever else I’m eating,” Hipps says.
“My two favorite dishes are the cornbread and peach cobbler,” says Soke Sade, a rising sophomore. “The cornbread is so soft and sweet that I can actually taste the honey.”
But Fried Chicken Wednesday represents much more than just food; it also reflects a greater sense of community and connection for the campus—a chance to unwind with roommates and friends, listen to music, maybe even see the dining staff busting out their best dance moves. “I imagine it as a Thanksgiving dinner,” Sade says. “Everyone is sitting around eating together and having great conversations.”
And the history of fried chicken within the Black community goes much deeper than a weekly college tradition. After the Civil War, free Black women used their culinary talents to support themselves and their families. One of the mechanisms for doing this: selling fried chicken to travelers on the nation’s railroads, as the scholar Psyche Williams-Forson wrote in her 2006 book, Building Houses out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, and Power. “Some women used chicken for economic freedom and independence; others used it to show off their cooking skills,” wrote Williams-Forson, who focused part of her research on the “waiter carriers” hawking their foods at the depot in Gordonsville, Virginia—which now bills itself as the fried chicken capital of the U.S.
Many of the dishes considered “comfort food” today have their roots in the creativity and labor of Black women who received little to no recognition. Southern-style fried chicken itself is thought to blend African and European culinary influences. This legacy of success is entangled in stereotypes: Foods like watermelon and fried chicken have served as a vehicle for racism because people eat them with their hands, which can be viewed as dirty or impolite.
But Black women’s mastery when it comes to cooking—including cooking chicken—has helped defy stereotypes. “By utilizing and identifying symbols commonly affiliated with black expressive culture like chicken, some black women engage in the process of self-definition,” Williams-Forson wrote. “They refuse to allow the wider American culture or their own communities to dictate what represents them.”
Fried Chicken Wednesday is just one meal honoring Black history: Some HBCUs also observe Fried Fish Friday, a tradition dating back to the days when enslaved people had a little extra time at the end of the week to go fishing. At Spelman, the Wednesday meal isn’t just a draw for students and staff—alumni and families touring the campus often stop by. “It’s a great way for people to connect and celebrate such an integral part of our campus,” says Sade, who has another piece of advice to impart, too: Ask for an extra scoop of crust with that peach cobbler.
This article appears in our October 2023 issue.