In 2014, when a police officer shot an unarmed man in Ferguson, Mo., touching off riots and distress over police violence against black people, Rose McGee watched events unfold from her home in Golden Valley.
“I’m sitting there watching TV and getting very frustrated, as other people were, and wondering what I could do,” said McGee, 65.
Then she knew. She went into her kitchen and began baking sweet potato pies.
McGee had once sold homemade desserts, including sweet potato pies, “the sacred dessert of black culture.” She quit the business after about five years, finding it too hard to juggle with her full-time job in professional development for the Minnesota Humanities Center.
This time, she didn’t plan to sell the pies. She loaded 30 into her car — Sweet Potato Comfort Pies, she called them — and drove to Ferguson herself. She visited the site of Brown’s shooting, where she met a grieving young woman who had known the young man.
“I asked her if she would take a sweet potato pie from me,” McGee said. She held out a pie, carefully packaged in a gift box, decorated with a heart-shaped piece of crust and accompanied by a poem written by McGee’s daughter.
The woman looked startled but accepted the pie. “It’s so pretty,” she said.
McGee continued handing out pies whenever she thought, “this person seems like they need a pie.”
The following year, when a white supremacist gunman burst into a prayer service at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., and killed nine people, McGee again filled the car with pies and headed down.
“They were so receptive and loving about us bringing those doggone pies, you’d think we were bringing gold nuggets,” she said.
She gave away pies after the shootings of Jamar Clark in Minneapolis and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights. The gesture, she found, “really brought joy to my soul.”
In 2015, McGee organized Eyes on the Pies, an event on the weekend of Martin Luther King Jr. Day in which volunteers gathered in a Golden Valley church kitchen to bake sweet potato pies. They made 86, representing the age King would have been that year. The next day, community members gathered to share the pies and tell personal stories, an event meant to deepen communication about race. They repeated the event the following year and plan to do it again in 2017 (see facebook.com/SweetPotato ComfortPies).
Surprisingly, McGee doesn’t even really like cooking.
“But when it comes to this pie, it has a whole other purpose for me,” she said. “I just responded to it.”