All Roads Lead Home: Foodways Returns to the Wythe Kitchen

Lydia Broadnax

For the past fifteen years Historic Foodways has moved throughout the Historic Area, interpreting and cooking in a variety of kitchens: the Palace, the Randolph, and most recently the Anderson Armory. We are happy to announce that Historic Foodways is back home, working and cooking in the Wythe and Palace kitchens.

Our move was completed in January, and now staff are settled in nicely. Using both kitchens the goal is to present aristocratic foodways for the governor and his guests, while the Wythe kitchen will present gentry class fare, as well as representing foodways and culture native to Virginia.

Staff have also been brushing up on the Wythe property narrative. As food historians, staff not only research the food and recipes of the period, but also the people who did the actual cooking. While we know the names of some of the cooks at the Governor’s Palace and Anderson Armoury (William Sparrow, Thomas Towse, Roseanne Wilson, William Parker, etc.), we actually know very little about their lives. Interestingly, it is the cook/housekeeper, an enslaved woman by the name of Lydia Broadnax, about whom we know the most.

While the details of her early years remain unclear, we know from tax records and other documents that she was working for George Wythe in the 1780s. As the cook, she was responsible for preparing meals for George and Elizabeth Wythe, visiting family and other guests. However, in September of 1787, a few weeks after the death of his wife, Wythe manumitted Lydia. As a paid servant, she continued to work on the property, and may have taken on the responsibilities as the housekeeper.

In 1791, when Wythe moved to Richmond, Broadnax went with him. By 1797, records show that she purchased property and eventually ran a boarding house for several years. Based on surviving records, it is clear that Lydia Broadnax was a trusted and respected member of George Wythe’s household. Upon the mysterious death of Wythe, the authorities questioned Broadnax, but according to the Act Concerning Slaves of 1785, her testimony was inadmissible, despite her status as a free woman, because she was African American. The Attorney General of Virginia, Edmund Randolph, testified in her place.

In a post-Revolutionary United States, when views regarding slavery were changing for the worse, Lydia Broadnax persevered. According to the 1820 census, of 5,622 African Americans living in Richmond, 1,235 were free. Fifty were property owners. Lydia Broadnax, a woman born into slavery roughly 80 years earlier, who literally fed some of our founding fathers and mothers, was one of those fifty.

Historic Foodways has a kitchen open seven days a week. Make sure to stop by and see both our sites. We look forward to seeing you soon.

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