This week we made a vegetable curry to honor Juliette Derricotte, who traveled the world representing African American women at universities and religious gatherings. We will apologize in advance for the lack of pictures of the preparation of this dish.
Juliette Derricotte was born April 1, 1897 in Athens, GA. After finishing her primary and secondary education, she left home and attended Talladega College. Talladega is Alabama’s first liberal arts college for African Americans, founded right after the Civil War by two formerly enslaved men and some local freedmen. They worked with the Freedmen’s Bureau and later the American Missionary Association to establish the school in 1867, which opened with 140 enrolled students, and was chartered as a college two years later. Juliette Derricotte’s time at Talladega was very influential to her later work, as she became involved in a number of student organizations and distinguished herself as a leader on campus.
One of the organizations that stood out to her was the YWCA. After she graduated in 1918 she moved to New York CIty to attend the YWCA Summer Training School, which she later described as one of the most miserable experiences of her life. However, she did not let this discourage her too much, as she accepted a position with the national board of the YWCA as a student secretary for African American schools in the South. After one year in this position, she became interested in developing interracial programming, which she believed could be designed to bring black and white students together while promoting fellowship in the spirit of Christ. This interracial work characterized the rest of her career with the YWCA.
Her work on interracial programming intersected with, and most likely inspired, her interest in international work. The YWCA and YMCA were closely related to an organization called the Student Volunteer Movement, and later an organization called the World Student Christian Federation. These groups were intended to support student mission work abroad, as well as fellowship with other Christian students and leaders across the globe. Juliette Derricotte traveled to two international conferences as a representative of the YWCA. The first was in 1924 in England and the second was in 1928 in Mysore, India. The latter conference allowed her to spend many months traveling through Asia, speaking with students about her experiences as an African American and a Christian, while also learning about the conflicts that plagued interracial and international groups around the world. She learned from her Korean roommate about that country’s suffering under Japanese oppression, of the prejudice against Indians by the British, of the horrible acts committed by Japan in China, all while witnessing the extreme poverty of the surrounding villages. When she returned to the United States, she told people that she enjoyed herself, but that deep down the things that she saw and learned there had changed her forever. Yet, she still felt called to work to fulfill of the organization that brought her there, “That All May Be One.”
The cookbook highlights this part of Derricotte’s legacy with an essay from longtime NCNW President Dorothy Height, titled “India in the Negro Woman’s Quest for Friendship.” The purpose of the essay is to highlight the relationship that Black women have had with Indian women and how the former has shared in the joys and sorrows of India. International relations were very important to the NCNW, especially as colonized nations across Asia and Africa achieved their freedom in the middle of the twentieth century. The essay begins by stating that no finer ambassador to the world than Derricotte, who “helped everyone she touched find new depth of conviction about sound race relations, and the dignity and worth of every human being.” Height goes on to discuss other African American women who had traveled to India, beginning with the Methodist Episcopal missionary Amanda Smith who visited India and Africa in the late 19th century. The other women named are Sue Bailey Thurman, Vera Chandler Foster, Flemmie Kitterell, Allie Miller Holley, and Mary Langford Taylor. Each of these women, including Height who worked at the Delhi School of Social Work at Delhi University, spent time in India building relationships with other women. As this essay demonstrates, Juliette Derricotte was an integral part of a black internationalist tradition.
In 1927 Derricotte completed a master’s degree in religious education from the Columbia University’s Teachers College and two years later left her position in the YWCA to assume the role of Dean of Women at Fisk University in Nashville, TN. Fisk had experienced a period of turmoil in the mid-20s and Derricotte was one of the brilliant African American faculty hires that were made in the subsequent years. In her position she encouraged the women at the school to be leaders and worked to support autonomous student organizations, which for many years had been curtailed by a paternalistic white administration. Things were not perfect at Fisk, but by drawing on her work with students in the YWCA, Derricotte became a positive figure on the campus and helped many young people steward many young people into adulthood.
Her life was tragically cut short in 1931 when she and three students were in a serious car wreck while traveling to Georgia. Derricotte was critically injured, but she was refused medical care in Georgia for nearly an entire day because of her race. When she was finally attended to, it was advised that she be transferred back to Chattanooga, TN to be treated. So, the following day they left for Tennessee without Dean Derricotte ever entering a hospital. She died en route. Her death was mourned across the United States and the world as a major loss to the educational, social, and religious community, especially for African Americans. The NAACP, Commission on Inter-Racial Cooperation, and Fisk University convened committees to investigate the events in Dalton. The general conclusions reached were that even if everything could have been done under local custom may have been done, those customs were built on blatant racial prejudice and as such this prejudice directly caused Derricotte’s death. She died at only 34 years old, but her spirit remained an inspiration to many, including Howard and Sue Bailey Thurman. As Howard Thurman said at her funeral, “[t]here is work to be done, and ghosts will drive us on.”
Since the dish was to celebrate Juliette Derricotte’s birthday, the recipe chosen was that typically served during an Indian Feast Day. They specifically name Divali or the Feast of Lights. Dorothy Moses – Indian Principal of Delhi School of Social Work – shared the recipes.
The recipe did not call for much by way of seasonings, so we elaborated based on Abena’s West Indian heritage and familiarity with making curries.
A quarter pound of each of your favorite vegetables: cauliflower, potatoes, and peas.
2 tsp curry powder
Salt to taste
2 Tbs of shortening or butter
Any herbs according to taste
The instructions began with chopping the onion and browning it in the butter. Then, there was a series of maneuvers that required us to move vegetables in and out of the pot. According to the recipe, we were supposed to “put it aside” – “it” being the onions – so that you could add in the potatoes and cauliflower. Then, you were supposed to take those out, add the onions back in with the curry powder, and finally return the rest of the vegetables back to the pot. Honestly, this seemed like a lot of unnecessary work so we decided to just add the potatoes and cauliflower into the pot with the onions and let them all cook together. Once we felt like that were starting to get tender, we added our take on the curry powder.
Because we wanted to stay close to the instructions the main liberties we took were with the seasonings, since we didn’t have curry powder. Instead, we mixed ground cumin, ginger, garlic, turmeric, cayenne, all spice, ground mustard, and two bay leaves. Then, while the onion was browning, I threw in some garlic powder so that the potatoes and cauliflower would get some flavor while browning. Then, feeling like we’d already changed a lot, Abena went against her Caribbean instincts and did exactly what the recipe asked for: poured water over everything and let it cook.
While pouring, I (Abena) couldn’t help but think about how thin the curry would be, and also how much water pulls flavor out of vegetables and could make the whole thing taste bland. Typically you would add either coconut milk, coconut cream, or at least some vegetable broth so that some thickness and flavor are added into the mix, really bringing all the spices together. We trusted the recipe though and figured we could always doctor it up at the end if need be. When we felt that there was about five minutes left, we added the frozen peas.
It turned out better than we expected considering it was water based. While it was indeed pretty thin, the flavors were still enjoyable enough for us all to have a portion for dinner and not really have any complaints! We are pretty sure that a lot of what we liked came from the use of butter rather than just an oil, it gave it a richness that would have been notably lacking without it. We both would recommend this recipe and would definitely make it again, just changing that one feature: add coconut milk or something so that it is heavier, more filling, and more flavorful.
The image of the Indian delegation is from the Boston University School of Divinity website and can be found here.
Amanda Smith Bio
On Juliette Derricotte:
Anderson, Lauren Kientz. “A Nauseating Sentiment, a Magical Device, or a Real Insight? Interracialism at Fisk University in 1930” Perspectives on the History of Higher Education, special edition on The African American Experience in Higher Education Before the Civil Rights Era, Roger L. Geiger, Christian Anderson, and Marybeth Gasman editors, vol 29. August 2012.
Cuthbert, Marion. Juliette Derricotte. New York: Womans Press, 1934.
Derricotte Bio on HBCUstory
Derricotte Bio by Linda T. Wynn