BOSTON — It's no accident, explains Kenneth Woods, younger son of restaurateur Sylvia Woods, that his mother is a remarkable woman. She's really just one more in a long line of them.
Kenneth's great-grandmother, Sylvia's grandmother, was a midwife in South Carolina. Her husband was hung by an angry lynch mob one day as she nursed their infant daughter. (A white man in the area had been murdered and the mob was responding to one of the old rules of that time: three black lives for one white).
Far from crumbling, the midwife persevered. She remarried a widower with a small farm. When he died, she borrowed money and bought the land. Sylvia today marvels at her grandmother. "I don't know how she, who couldn't read or write and had to make a mark to sign her name, knew how to borrow money. But somehow she did."
Her daughter, Sylvia's mother, grew up on the farm and married a man who was disabled while serving in the First World War. He died in 1926, when their only child, Sylvia, was two weeks old. To help make ends meet and keep the farm in the family, Sylvia's mother left her for a few years with her grandmother and went to live in Brooklyn, where she earned money working in a laundry.
"It was the 1920s and Harlem was jumping," says her grandson Kenneth. "Most young women would have been partying. But my grandmother saved everything she could and sent it home." With that money the farm prospered. The family became the first in their area to have electricity, running water, a television, and a car.
Later, when Sylvia grew up and came to New York it was the money from the farm that allowed her to launch the multimillion-dollar family business that now bears her name.
The women in his family, says Kenneth, "are cut from a certain cloth, have a certain kind of character."
What words would he use to describe them? "Strength, courage," and, he adds, "an abundance of love."