Black Excellence Month:
Feed Your Soul
We’re thrilled to collaborate with NewCanaanite.com on what we are rebranding as “Black Excellence Month: Feed Your Soul" all Black History Month long. We kicked off the month with our Founder and President Fatou Niang's interview with NewCanaanite.com, which you can read here. Then we shared Georgia Gilmore's and Kyla Johns's stories, which you can find below. Our last spotlight is Chef Damon "Daye" Stewart, executive chef of 29 Markle Ct and Guest Speaker at our Soul•Fete event on March 2nd!
Executive Chef Damon “Daye” Sawyer
"Always With Love"
Our last Black Excellence Month spotlight features Executive Chef Damon "Daye" Sawyer of 29 Markle Ct in nearby Bridgeport, though some of his most formative culinary years were spent in and around New Canaan as both Chef and caterer, including at the Bedford Post Inn and Restaurant North before branching out on his own.
It’s said necessity is the mother of invention, and Executive Chef Damon “Daye” Sawyer’s first foray into cooking was a direct result of his being a vegetarian growing up in a family from the South that loved their meat-centric dishes. And learn his craft he did! Sawyer worked his way up in local and New York kitchens before deciding to go out on his own with his highly regarded catering company Our Table Dinners, which had a clientele of music industry executives and artists that led to Sawyer catering five Grammy parties. This impressive journey ultimately led to the opening of 29 Markle Ct in January as Executive Chef, but not before designing and executing friend’s newly launched cafe, Win Win Coffee Bar in Philadelphia prior to running The Steak Truck.
Chef Sawyer shared with Andrew Dominick of CTBites.com, “Josh (Tanner), the director of NY Prime Beef wanted to hire me to run a new food truck idea called The Steak Truck sometime after I invited him to a swanky party I catered in New York,” Sawyer explains. “He said, ‘Holy shit. I didn’t know you could cook like this. I have an idea if you’d be interested in partnering up.’ Around the same time, I was offered a job at Eleven Madison Park. Daniel (Humm) even wanted me to run a food truck. The Steak Truck was an opportunity to create my own thing from the ground up and make my own schedule. I came up with the program for the food truck and it took off like wildfire.”
When recently asked about 29 Markle Ct’s menu and mission, Chef Sawyer told CTBites.com, “We’re cooking organic, local vegetables and meat. We want to deal with farmers rather than big distributors. It is kind of cook whatever I want, but it’s seasonal, and I’m also drawing off some of the things I grew up on like our shrimp & grits, but we’re using a guinea grit, a strain that was the first to come to the Americas from Africa.”
True to Black Excellence Month’s theme, Sawyer isn’t just feeding our stomachs. He’s absolutely feeding our souls! Also a musician, he told CTBites.com, “Mixing records is very similar to balancing tastes if you can imagine that. The lows of a record are like beets to me. That funk, the color of it. It’s a deep sound. You add shallots, it’s like a string session. That was a major component into my transition to being a chef. I knew what balancing sound was. Same thing as ingredients.”
When recently asked by Baldor Speciality Foods to share advice for the next generation of chefs, Sawyer says, “Stay passionate about your craft. Be grateful and kind to your peers, and be of service to others. Learn from your mistakes. Don’t let praise go to your head or criticism to your heart. Look ahead to those that came before you, and look back to the ones that will follow. Work hard, work smart, and cook your [butt] off!”
We hope you've enjoyed having your soul fed as much as we've enjoyed feeding it! You can catch Chef Sawyer at our first in person fundraiser, Soul•Fete, on March 2nd at the Carriage Barn Arts Center at Waveny Park in New Canaan. Learn more and buy your tickets here!
About 29 Markle Ct
A unique experience to those dining within its art filled walls. 29 Markle Ct provides a space for diners to experience a great seasonal meal and feel comfortable in an eclectic ambiance. With head bartender Razul Branch serving up a variety of classic cocktails, and a great selection of top shelf liquor & Wines, 29 Markle Ct, will be the perfect setting for a night out with friends and family, as well as a premiere location for networking & business professionals. Chef Damon Daye and owner/partners, Wesley Arbuthnot, and Ishalee Green are creating “partnerships that are nourishing, that create a story of us.” By getting the bulk of their produce from local farms within the community of Bridgeport, the restaurant aims to encourage beneficial and long-term partnerships for small businesses throughout the city. Using smoked methods of cooking & menu options ranging from salt roasted beets, curry dumplings, smoked fried chicken to fried black rice with crab, 29 Markle Ct is sure to be a refreshing addition to Connecticut and to downtown Bridgeport’s dining scene.
Next up: We are celebrating Black Excellence Month by feeding your soul with a spotlight on local poet, artist, educator, and activist Kyla Johns. Kyla grew up in nearby Darien and attended New Canaan Country School before graduating from Darien High School in 2015, and now shares her art and gifts with the community as Co-founder and President of LGBTQIA+ and women led grassroots org R.A.G.E.T.I.M.E.
Co-founder & President of R.A.G.E.T.I.M.E.
Kyla Johns was a 2015 graduate of Darien High School and is an artist and poet passionate about helping to uplift the voices of Black and Indigenous communities in every space.
While attending Darien High School, Kyla was a member of the Field Hockey team, the Black Student Union, the Gay-Straight Alliance, the Best Buddies Club and was an avid artist. She attended Ohio State University, where she studied Psychology and Education before finding her calling to push for education reform in the school systems.
She began by organizing and leading protests in CT and NY for Black Lives Matter and to end police brutality, followed by creating and teaching an activism program through the non-profit organization LiveGirl, called So You Want To Be An Activist? Through this program, she hopes to light the fire in future agents of change and promote a lifestyle fighting for equity and the inclusion of marginalized groups. To this end, she co-founded R.A.G.E.T.I.M.E., which stands for Reform and Amend General Education to Teach and Integrate Minority Experiences.
In 2020, LiveGirl presented her with the Mentor Impact Award for her work teaching the So You Want To Be An Activist? program. In 2021, the YWCA of Norwalk/Darien named Kyla a Women of Distinction honoree. Most recently, she returned to New Canaan Country School as the MLK Keynote Speaker on the topic “Creating the Belonging We Wish to See” (pictured left).
Kyla also continues her activism work through holding educational events, such as for mental health awareness, art showcases, and continuing to lead protests against racial injustices. Through her poetry, spoken word, and art, she has merged her creativity with her activism work and has performed throughout the tri-state area.
Kyla strives to help every person find their voice and confidence through art, yoga, meditation, music, poetry, self-care practices, and other healing methods. She is the CEO of Beyond Pain Collective, a sustainable brand stitching fashion, community, and mental health together. We invite you to dive into some of Kyla's work this week as we share her poetry on our Instagram over the next few days!
R.A.G.E.T.I.M.E. stands for Reform and Amend General Education to Teach and Integrate Minority Experiences.
R.A.G.E.T.I.M.E. is a diverse female and LGBTQIA+ led grassroots organization, comprised of passionate individuals who demand to see actionable change in our community when it comes to racial inequalities and educational injustices. Their backgrounds in social justice reform vary from social media work, protest organization and community leadership, and they have one common goal: to achieve an accurate, anti-racist education for students of all ages and all backgrounds. Their common core values and passion are the defining features that make like-minded people say, "it's time to R.A.G.E.!"
In our second week of Black Excellence Month: Feed Your Soul with NewCanaanite.com, we're sharing Ms. Georgia Gilmore's story. Ms. Gilmore fed and funded the 381-day Montgomery Bus Boycott, and that's not all she did for the Civil Rights Movement in her 70 years. Scroll down to learn all about Georgia's remarkable life.
The Club From Nowhere
The story of Georgia Gilmore
Georgia Gilmore adjusts her hat for photographers in 1956 during
the bus boycott trial of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Montgomery,
Ala. She testified: "When you pay your fare and they count the money,
they don't know the Negro money from white money." AP
In order to bring Georgia to life, we have written a short biography of her life in the first person.
The day started as usual. I cooked at the National Lunch Company. After a long hard day, I was looking forward to getting home, making dinner and enjoying my family.
That Friday afternoon in October 1955, I waited at the bus stop just like every day for the bus to come and take me back home, far from the noise of the city.
After I had paid my fare and was about to go take a seat in the back, the driver started shouting at me for using the front door instead of the back. I had gone too many times through the humiliating process of taking the bus in Jim Crow South, paying in the front with a walk of shame to the back. I looked at him and said, “I already paid my fare, I don’t see why I should get off.” I was tired and just wanted to go sit, but he was not going to let me do that. Furious and powerless, I wanted to argue but instead I complied. You see, back then you could get arrested just for that.
A bus driver is all alone as his empty bus moves through downtown Montgomery, Ala., in April 1956 during the boycott. Georgia Gilmore's cooking helped fund an alternative system of transportation that arose for the city's African-Americans during the boycott. Horace Cort/AP
I was born on February 5th, 1920, in Montgomery. My six siblings and I grew up on a small family farm with cows, hogs, and chickens. Growing up in Montgomery, we were raised to keep our heads down and survive.
I got off the bus and was on my way to the back door when the door closed and the bus drove away. This was not the first time I faced racism but right here and then I, Georgia Gilmore, daughter of Janie C. Gilmore and Taylor Burns, vowed never to take the bus ever again.
Two months later, on December 1st, another upstanding Black woman was arrested on the bus and jailed for refusing to give up her seat for a white person to sit. She was the latest of many arrests. Before her, on March 2nd, Claudette Colvin, a fifteen-year-old high school student, was arrested. Same thing again in October of 1955 with Mary Louise Smith, eighteen years old. But when Rosa Parks was arrested, that was one too many. Enough was enough: the Montgomery bus system was entirely relying on us domestic workers, cooks like me, maids, nannies, seamstresses like Rosa Parks. We, day in and out, took abuse from passengers and bus drivers. We had rights and were not going to bow our heads any more.
I had already been boycotting the buses for months when I saw the circulating flyer from The Women Political Council (WPC) of Montgomery for a community meeting at Holt Street Baptist Church on Monday December 5th. Even though I was not sure the meeting would be well attended, I still went and to my surprise and delight, I was one of nearly 5,000 who showed up in support of taking action -- and I was part of it alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I felt like something big was about to happen and change was coming. That meeting launched the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
Some of us walked for miles to go to work if we weren’t fired for participating in the boycott, and we organized alternative transportation for those who could not walk or participate for economic reasons or for discretion, even if they agreed and supported the boycott, with carpooling routes.
How could I help? What could I do to support my community? I could only use what I do best to help: cooking.
Later in life, Gilmore started a catering business and home restaurant. While black people and white people usually ate in separate spaces, “they elbowed together in Gilmore’s kitchen,” the food historian John T. Edge wrote in the book “The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South” (2017). The Montgomery Advertiser
I knew how to cook (everyone in Montgomery from households to lunch facilities wanted to taste my cooking!) and be a midwife. To support the carpooling clubs, we needed to pay for gas, insurance, upkeep of the cars, etc. I couldn’t fail. Failing meant going back to taking the bus.
The first thing was to organize the women both from the east and west side of Montgomery. We had to be able to act and move freely despite the police watch. I formed the “Club From Nowhere”, a clandestine group of women cooking fried chicken or fish, pork chops, green beans, and baked goods (potato or peach pies, poundcakes) that we sold from our homes and gave the money to support our alternative transportation.
We drew support from so many different communities around Montgomery. This was the South. Even from white allies, who could discretely support us because they could write a check to “The Club From Nowhere” and not have to disclose who the recipient was. If we were in trouble or questioned for carrying so much cash, we could honestly answer “from selling goods”, or even “from Nowhere”.
When they arrested Dr. King and 100 others for violating Alabama’s anti-boycott laws, I shared my story and testified as to why bus segregation needed to stop. My money is the same as white money once I pay my fare. For that, I was fired from the National Lunch Company. We did not give up and fed and funded the boycott for 381 days. On December 20th, 1956, Dr. King called the end of the boycott after The U.S. Supreme Court struck down segregation laws on public buses on Nov.13th, 1956. We were essential to the Civil Rights Movement. I was so proud to be a part of the first massive, influential public demonstration. We had accomplished what we thought was impossible to overcome in Montgomery.
I had my fair share of mockeries in the paper for my size, but they could not dim my light because I had love at home. I am a smart, quick-witted, industrious, motherly woman who took the best advice that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave me: “All these years you’ve worked for somebody else, now it’s time you worked for yourself.” I never worked for anyone else again. I started my own home restaurant and catering business. Even during segregation, both Black and white elbowed together to enjoy. Dr. King, my neighbors, Sam Cooke, and Aretha Franklin were regulars and even Lyndon B. Johnson and Robert F. Kennedy enjoyed my dishes.
Georgia Gilmore in 1978 in Montgomery, Ala. The Montgomery Advertiser
That was only the beginning for me. I persisted. There was so much more hate to counter. In December 1958, I joined a class-action lawsuit to desegregate Montgomery’s public parks. It took us 16 years, but we did it. In 1974 the Supreme Court ruled the practice unconstitutional.
I, Georgia Gilmore, am leaving you on this day of March 3rd, 1990 at age 70, doing what I loved the most: cooking. I cooked my most famous macaroni and cheese and fried chicken one last time for the celebrations of the 25th anniversary of the March from Selma to Montgomery.
The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South by John T. Edge (2017).
“When I paid my fare and they got the money, they don’t know Negro money from white money,” Georgia testified.
The American Black History – Georgia Gilmore
Georgia in the New York Times’ Overlooked series.
Southern Foodways collaborated with the Montgomery Advertiser to celebrate Georgia’s life, and make amends for how she’d been represented in the Advertiser’s pages. It’s a beautiful read by another Black woman we encourage you to enjoy!
Councilman Gilmore was gracious enough to share Georgia’s Legendary Sweet Tea recipe so we can raise a glass to her.
Listen in to the personal accounts of many who had the pleasure of eating in Ms. Georgia’s kitchen, including her son, Montgomery City Councilman Mark Gilmore, in NPR’s “The Kitchen of a Civil Rights Hero."
Soul•Fête: From Africa to America, A Culinary Tasting Immersion
Speaking of feeding your soul, we can't wait for the opportunity to share delicious bites from talented, local Black chefs with you on March 2nd at our first in person fundraiser. Learn more and buy your tickets below!
In keeping with our tradition of highlighting American Blackness in its fullness, Stand Together Against Racism (S.T.A.R.) invites you to wrap up and celebrate the end of Black History Month by exploring the influence of Black cuisine on American food culture writ large at their first annual Soul•Fête: From Africa to America, A Culinary Tasting Immersion.
Come sip and dance the night away with local band The Misfits while enjoying tasty soul food from local Black-owned restaurants on March 2nd from 7 pm to 9 pm. Special Guest Chef Damon Sawyer of 29 Markle Ct will regale us with the past, present, and future of Black food, while local Celebrity Judges choose the best Mac & Cheese from our impressive list of restaurateurs. Our Panel will include Celebrity Judge Stephanie Webster, Editor in Chief of CT Bites.
S.T.A.R. is also seeking additional sponsors for this event; kindly reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org to receive additional promotional materials and learn of exclusive opportunities including day of VIP offerings.
Feel free to send us an email with any questions!