In celebration of International Women’s Month, we delve into the captivating life story of Zephyr Wright, a multifaceted personality known not only for her culinary prowess but also for her impactful role in the civil rights movement. This comprehensive exploration sheds light on the remarkable journey of Zephyr Wright, tracing her roots, her pivotal influence in the highest echelons of power, and her enduring legacy.

Unveiling Zephyr Wright’s Persona

Zephyr Wright (1915-1988), born as Zephyr Black, stands as an indomitable African-American figure who etched her name into the annals of history. Her profound impact as a personal chef to Lyndon B. Johnson during his tenure as both a Congressman and President (1942 to 1969) is widely acknowledged. However, her contributions span beyond culinary excellence – she is hailed for her pivotal role in the passage of significant civil rights legislation, notably the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

An old black and white photo of a woman in a kitchen.

Nurturing Roots in Marshall, Texas, and Wiley College

Zephyr Wright’s journey unfolds against the backdrop of Marshall, Texas, where she was born and raised. Constrained by the societal norms that confined African-American women to domestic labor, Zephyr’s ambitions soared beyond her hometown’s limitations.

Her pursuit of education led her to Wiley College, where she found herself under the guidance of Melvin Tolson, an influential activist. This mentorship was a catalyst that ignited her involvement in the Civil Rights Movement.

Culinary Enchantress in the Heart of Power

Zephyr Wright’s culinary talents, steeped in Southern tradition, found their way to the table of Claudia Johnson and her husband, Lyndon B. Johnson. Her sumptuous Southern delicacies instantly endeared her to the Johnsons, transforming their residence into a hub of gastronomic delight.

Zephyr’s culinary creations not only sated appetites but also fostered connections within Washington, D.C.’s elite circles. Her kitchen became a hub where influencers, legislators, and intellectuals converged, forging relationships that shaped history.

Related: History of Soul Food

The Essence of Zephyr’s Culinary Artistry

Among Zephyr Wright’s celebrated dishes, Lady Bird Johnson’s favorite – Shrimp Curry à la Zephyr Wright – takes center stage. An ode to Southern flavors, this dish captures the essence of Zephyr’s culinary finesse. A dash of innovation in the form of hemp hearts provides a contemporary twist, seamlessly merging tradition with modernity.

A Friend, Advisor, and Changemaker

Zephyr Wright’s role transcended the kitchen; she evolved into a confidante, advisor, and influencer within the Johnson family. Witnessing the indignities of the Jim Crow South, she shared her experiences with President Lyndon B. Johnson and Lady Bird Johnson.

These insights ignited a transformative fire within the Johnsons, driving them to advocate for civil rights reforms. Zephyr’s influence was instrumental in molding the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a watershed moment in the struggle for equality.

Influence Beyond the Kitchen: A Chef and Civil Rights Advocate

became a significant voice in the Civil Rights Movement and a personal influencer to President Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ). Wright shared her firsthand experiences of racial segregation in the Jim Crow-era South with LBJ and his wife. During their road trips from Washington, D.C., to their Texas residence, the Johnsons witnessed the racial injustices that Wright and other African Americans endured in the Southern United States.

President john f kennedy signing the bill of rights.
Image of the 1965 Voting Rights Act signing ceremony, with Zephyr Wright standing second from the right.

Distressed by the racial segregation she faced, Wright eventually chose to stay in Washington, D.C., full-time, declining to accompany the Johnsons on their travels. LBJ leveraged Wright’s experiences to build political momentum for the 1964 Civil Rights Act, using her stories to persuade lawmakers to back the legislation. After signing the historic act, President Johnson honored Wright by giving her one of the signing pens.

A Deepening Relationship with the First Family

Over time, Wright evolved from being merely an employee to becoming a close friend and advisor to the Johnson family. She even taught Luci Johnson, the President’s daughter, how to cook. Both LBJ and Lady Bird Johnson were deeply affected by the racial injustices that Wright and other African Americans faced, strengthening the bond between Wright and the First Family.

Wright often relayed public sentiment to President Johnson, both positive and negative, which he highly valued. On one occasion, she informed him about a pay disparity between herself and another White House chef, leading Johnson to raise the salaries of both Wright and her husband, Sammy, who served as the President’s chauffeur.

Life After the White House

Wright’s tenure with the Johnsons concluded in 1969, coinciding with the end of LBJ’s presidency and the passing of her husband, Sammy. She continued to reside in Washington, D.C., until her death on April 25, 1988, due to a heart condition. Regrettably, her contributions to civil rights were often overshadowed by her culinary achievements.

In a 1967 conversation about the appointment of Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court, LBJ told Wright, “I’ve appointed the first African American to the Supreme Court,” highlighting the level of intimacy and trust between them.

One day he came home, and he said, “Oh, do you see that I have appointed the first Negro to the Supreme Court?” I said, “Oh! Has it gone through?” And he said, “Well, no, but I’m sure it will. I’ve appointed him.”LBJ Speaking With Wright in 1967 regarding soon-to-be SCOTUS Justice Thurgood Marshall

Legacy and Honors

  • In 2019, Zephyr Wright was posthumously honored by the New York Times as one of the “6 Black Chefs Who Changed the History of Food.”
  • Wright served as a trusted advisor to LBJ on pivotal matters, including his stance on the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
  • She was in attendance when President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. After the signing, Johnson handed her the pen he used, declaring, “No one deserves this more than you.”
  • Remarkably, Wright achieved all this despite never envisioning a life beyond her native Marshall, Texas.

For a woman who never thought she’d leave her hometown of Marshall, Texas, Zephyr Wright’s life and contributions were nothing short of extraordinary.

The History Chicks Present Zephyr Wright

Zephyr Wright’s life exemplifies the harmonious coexistence of culinary artistry and civil rights activism. Her contributions, while spanning distinct realms, are interconnected threads that weave a tapestry of empowerment, equality, and progress. The indelible mark she left continues to resonate, underscoring the profound impact of a woman who defied expectations and redefined possibilities.

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