The more tragedies unfold, the more pies Rose McGee bakes.
From Ferguson, Mo., to Charleston, S.C., the Golden Valley 69-year-old has trekked across the nation giving out slices of sweet potato pie, offering hope and healing amid the horror of violence, most often against African Americans.
Now, as the nation confronts rising racism and the recent attack on the U.S. Capitol that included white supremacists, McGee and her all-volunteer west metro nonprofit, Sweet Potato Comfort Pie, are busier than ever, aiming to bridge divides among Minnesotans.
On Sunday, she will mark Martin Luther King Jr. Day by wrangling 240 pounds of sweet potatoes into 92 pies — for what would have been King's 92nd birthday Friday. She and volunteers will hand them out in a drive-through pickup at Breck School after a virtual presentation at 2 p.m.
"The idea is to help inspire people and keep them motivated despite everything that's going on," McGee said. "If we find ourselves locked up in this fear and the chaos that's happening, it would not be good."
McGee is doing much more than just dishing up sweet potato pie, "a sacred dessert" for Black Americans. The treats are a platform to comfort the grieving and an opening for conversations among people who may not otherwise come together. From police officers to teachers, Republican legislators and Democratic mayors, Minnesotans have received her pies, topped with a heart and packaged with a poem.
In the last year, McGee dropped off 20 pies at the Minneapolis memorial for George Floyd and handed them out to Lake Street businesses damaged in the civil unrest. Then, she distributed 200 pies across the state, part of new community conversations on race.
"We're more than just a pretty pie," she said. "Our goal is to use the pie as a catalyst for caring and building community."
McGee, who is also an artist, storyteller and full-time staffer at the Minnesota Humanities Center, organized four conversations called "How We Can Breathe" at the St. Paul center, amplifying the voices of African Americans by hosting Black mothers who had lost children to violence, elders and youth, artists and policymakers. She sent the 200 pies to organizations in St. Cloud, Duluth, Rochester and Mankato to give out and continue the discussion about systemic racism.
"This work has to be consistent across the country," McGee said. "This took centuries to create, so now we can't just unravel it and fix it just like that. It takes time and it takes patience — and it's the thing people are running out of."
McGee, who attended segregated schools for much of her childhood, was raised in Tennessee by her grandmother and great-grandmother, who passed down the pie recipe that McGee has tweaked over the years.
Then, in 2014, as she watched the civil unrest unfold on TV of Ferguson, Mo., after Michael Brown was shot by police, the mother of two was moved to act, driving 500 miles with 30 pies. The next year, she flew to South Carolina after a white supremacist killed nine people at a Charleston church. Again and again, from Pittsburgh to Standing Rock, McGee arrives with pies and hope at a time when communities are starved for goodness.
"Showing love and compassion and kindness is really what we need," said Leslie Redmond, former president of NAACP Minneapolis and founder of Don't Complain, Activate. "Rose is a national treasure. A lot of it is thankless work."
In Minnesota, McGee has responded after police shootings of Jamar Clark and Philando Castile and to the widow of John Carlson, a janitor killed in the Minnehaha Academy explosion. Her work has attracted national media attention and made her Golden Valley Citizen of the Year in 2017. In 2019, she landed a prestigious Bush Foundation fellowship.
On Sunday, though, she will honor others, recognizing Golden Valley Mayor Shep Harris for championing diversity in the suburb, which just hired its first equity and inclusion manager, as well as McGee's late husband William McGee, who was Hennepin County's chief public defender.
"The work that she's doing is really transformational," Harris said. "In times of crisis, people need something to hold on to ... something that helps them lower their shields. She's doing great kinds of things at the right time to make it a better world."
Go to sweetpotatocomfortpie.org for details on how to watch the nonprofit's seventh-annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day event online from 2-4:30 p.m. Sunday. The website also includes Rose McGee's recipe for her sweet potato pie and ways to order a pie online.
Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141