By Jan White
Another Crockett native featured on the historic downtown banners designed by Robin Ogg is Lucille B. Smith.
Smith is known as the first Black businesswoman in Texas. She was a chef, an educator, a community leader and a cookbook author who invented the first commercial hot roll mix and created a first-of-its-kind curriculum at Prairie View A&M University.
One of eleven children, Lucille Elizabeth Bishop, was born on September 5, 1892, in Crockett. She attended college and graduated from what is known now as Huston-Tillotson University in Austin.
In 1911, she married her college sweetheart, Ulysses Samuel Smith, and the couple moved to Fort Worth, Texas. According to the Texas State Historical Association Handbook of Texas, Smith, a skilled seamstress, and cook, took a position in 1927 as a teacher-coordinator for a vocational education program for the Fort Worth school system that trained African-American students for domestic service jobs. Not long after, she started working at Camp Waldemar, a summer camp for privileged girls, where she managed the kitchen.
In 1937, Prairie View A&M became aware of Smith’s talents and recruited her to develop the country’s first college Commercial Foods and Technology Department, pairing educational studies with an apprenticeship program. Smith created what the college handbook described as a “domestic service training program.”
Carol Roark, archivist, and historian in Fort Worth, said, “She [Smith] recognized that women of color didn’t have many opportunities. She forged a pathway for them. She gave them skills to make a good living and lift themselves out of poverty.”
In 1941, Smith wrote a cookbook in the form of a card file of her recipes, called “Lucille’s Treasure Chest of Fine Foods.” – these days a collectors’ item. Around the same time as her cookbook/recipe box publication, Smith organized a fundraising campaign for her church, St. Andrew’s United Methodist Church of Fort Worth, where she sold a hot roll mix she had invented and raised $800 for the church. A few years later, Lucille’s All Purpose Hot Roll Mix appeared in grocery stores, making Smith’s recipe the first commercial hot roll mix in the United States.
A 2004 article in the Cleburne Times-Review reported that “Grocery stores began placing orders for cases of the mix. By April of ’48, the orders were for more than two hundred cases a week of the 14-ounce boxes. Twenty-one different products [recipes] could be made from the base. The product paved the way for the convenience cooking we know today.”
Smith was also deeply involved in community work. She was the first Black woman to join the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce. In 1965, Smith baked a fruitcake for the families of more than three hundred service members from Tarrant County who were serving in the Vietnam War.
The following year, Fort Worth proclaimed a Lucille B. Smith Day in gratitude for her generous spirit. Her mark on the culinary world was far-reaching. Her chili biscuits were served on American Airlines flights and at the White House when Lyndon B. Johnson was president. And in 1974, at the age of 82, Smith finally founded and became president of Lucille B. Smith’s Fine Foods.
Smith died on January 12, 1985, at age 92, and was buried at St. Andrew’s Methodist Church in Fort Worth. A dedicated Christian servant and member of the church for over seventy years, the program from her funeral highlighted a verse that exemplified her life - “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works.”
Smith’s legacy – and many of her dishes – live on at a Houston restaurant owned by her great-grandson, chef Chris Williams. In August 2012, “Lucille’s” opened in a 1923 Mission-style home on a quiet, tree-lined street in the Museum District. While the restaurant features distinctly southern culinary styles, diners will also discover inventive and unexpected pairings inspired by Williams’ travels. But Chef Williams promises that “Lucille’s legendary chili biscuits will always be on the menu.”