International Women's Month: Zephyr Wright

In honor of International Woman’s Month, we’d like to present Zephyr Wright, a chef, a civil rights activist, and friend and employee of Lyndon B. Johnson’s family and administrations in Congress and the White House. A woman who became a culinary icon and who also helped influence the civil rights movement.

Table of Contents

"You deserve this more than anyone else"

Lyndon B. Johnson presenting Zephyr Wright with the signing pen for the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Who was Zephyr Wright?

Zephyr Wright (1915-1988), born Zephyr Black, was an African-American civil rights figure and the personal chef for Lyndon B. Johnson as both a Congressman and as President (1942 until 1969). She is also credited with having a significant role and influence on the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 among other legislation related to civil rights. 

Wright's Early Years in Marshall, Texas and Wiley College

Wright was born and reared in Marshall, Texas, and had always believed that her future would be limited to doing a lifetime of household labor in her hometown, which was common for African American women of the time.

 

Wright would study Home Economics at Wiley College, which was also located in Marshall, Texas. While attending Wiley College Wright would study under, Melvin Tolson, an activist who persuaded Wright to become involved in the Civil Rights Movement.

Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson Hire Wright

When Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson came seeking a cook in the early 1940s, things changed for Wright almost overnight. Some friends suggested that the Johnsons interview Wright. That interview began a thirty-plus-year career of producing delectable meals for an indomitable power couple and the Johnson administration, a power couple that would be forever changed by their new cook and friend.

Zephyr Wright Serves Up Classic Southern Food for the Movers and Shakers in Washington D.C.

Zephyr Wright’s old-fashioned Southern cooking was an instant plus for Claudia Johnson and her husband, Congressman and future President Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ). Zephyr Wright kept the Johnsons well-fed on meals she cooked, while also assisting them in making their home “the place to be” when it came to D.C.’s dinner party scene. Few passed up the chance to dine with the Johnsons, and such dinners provided a wonderful opportunity to get to know important White House officials, legislators, intellectuals, journalists, and other Washington movers and shakers.

Shrimp Curry à la Zephyr Wright

One of Lady Bird Johnson's favorite dishes was Shrimp Curry à la Zephyr Wright. It's one of our favorites as well. Of course we add a twist, hemp hearts.

White House Chef and Civil Rights Icon

Wright’s influence did not stop at the White House kitchen; she would soon become a major influence on the Civil Rights Movement and President Johnson himself. Zephyr Wright began telling LBJ and his wife of her experiences in the Jim Crow south. During congressional recesses, the Johnsons would drive back-and-forth from Washington, D.C. to their home in central Texas. These trips exposed the Johnsons firsthand to the degradation many Zephyr and other African Americans suffered in the Southern USA at the time.

 

Wright was so tormented by segregation practices and laws that she eventually refused to travel with the Johnsons and she remained in Washington D.C. full-time.

 

LBJ built political support for the 1964 Civil Rights Act by appealing to Wright’s Jim Crow experiences, which he used to influence lawmakers into supporting the Bill. President Lyndon Johnson presented his chef and friend Zephyr Wright with one of the signing pens after he had signed the historical Civil Rights Bill.

Wright and President Johnson's Relationship

Over time Wright became more than an employee of the Johnson family she became a friend, an influencer, advisor, and even taught Luci Johnson how to cook. Both Lyndon Johnson and Lady Bird Johnson witnessed the cruelty that Wright and African Americans suffered due to Jim Crow laws and the racism that made southern culture so toxic at the time. This built a bond between the chef and the First Family of the USA.

 

Wright frequently passed on messages to Johnson, both of approval and criticism, that she had heard from people in her everyday life. Something that Johnson greatly valued.

 

On one such occasion, Wright says she informed President Johnson about the difference in salaries between herself and another White House chef, to which Johnson reacted by increasing both Zephyr and her husband’s pay. Her husband, Sammy Wright, was a chauffeur for President Johnson as well as his family.

lady bird johnson and zephyr wright

Zephyr Wright's Later Years

Wright’s time with the Johnsons came to an end in 1969 when LBJ’s time in the White House came to an end. Her husband Sammy also passed away in 1969.

 

After leaving the White House in 1969, she spent the remainder of her life in Washington D.C. until Wright died on the 25th of April in 1988 of a heart condition. Unfortunately, during her life, Zephyr was not as well recognized for her significant civil rights efforts as she was known for her culinary skills.

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
zephyr wright civil rights act of 1964

Zephyr Wright's Accomplishments

-In 2019 Wright was posthumously named one of the “6 Black Chefs Who Changed the History of Food”, by the New York Times.

 

-LBJ sought Wright’s counsel on issues such as the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom when Johnson became the vice president of the Kennedy Administration. 

 

-She was present at Johnson’s signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and she was front and center. Afterward, he gave her the pen he had used to sign the act, saying, “You deserve this more than anyone else.”

 

Not bad for a woman who never thought she’d leave Marshall, Texas.

The History Chicks Present Zephyr Wright