Southern chef Mama Dip, civil rights leader Harold Foster honored in Chapel Hill

Mildred Council opened for breakfast one morning in 1976, a moment that would spark a legacy in Southern food. Over the next four decades, her restaurant Mama Dip’s became a Chapel Hill institution and she a community leader and activist, wielding the power of food to bring people together.

Wednesday, Council’s name was added to Chapel Hill’s Peace and Justice Plaza, along with that of Harold Foster, one of the Chapel Hill Nine, a group of teenagers who in 1960 were refused service at the Colonial Drug Store because they were black.

The town named the plaza outside the downtown courthouse in 2009 to honor citizens who spent their lives furthering social justice. There are 15 other names on the granite marker.

“Mildred ‘Mama Dip’ Council was a culinary and community matriarch known for her traditional Southern cooking and her community service,” according to a town news release.

She served on the Orange County Prison Board and hired and helped the formerly incarcerated, and she co-founded, with Nerys Levy, the Community Dinner, an annual celebration of diversity in Orange County that asks attendees to “sit down with a stranger and leave with a friend.”

Council died last year at age 89, having achieved national fame and an invitation to the White House. The food she learned to make as one of seven children on a Chatham County farm in the Jim Crow era was praised by restaurant critics and life-affirming for generations of UNC students and Chapel Hill families.

She wrote two classic cookbooks, and her fried chicken, biscuits and rich Southern desserts are staples of Mama Dip’s, which continues on Rosemary Street in Chapel Hill, operated by the next generation of Council women.

“My mama cooked really traditional Southern food that really connected with people,” Spring Council, one of her daughters, said last year. “It took them back to their mother’s and grandmother’s kitchens. She wanted to open a restaurant because she loved to cook. The emotion and memory that food sends out to people is a big deal. Her food stirred up memories.”

Wednesday’s ceremony was held two weeks after the anniversary of Council’s death. Spring Council said the timing made the honor particularly meaningful.

“Mama had done a lot for the community and for that to be recognized, especially being so close to the one-year anniversary, made it special,” she said Wednesday in a phone interview.

With a restaurant to run, Spring Council said life couldn’t slow down in the last year, and that her mother had taught the family well.

“In the restaurant industry, you’re never going to have a lot of time to be sad,” Council said. “It’s been challenging, but we’ve been able to continue running the business. She taught us how to get things done. We’ve got to keep moving.”

The Council and Foster families attended the ceremony, along with community leaders like longtime Crook’s Corner chef Bill Smith.

“This is perfect,” Smith tweeted Wednesday with a photo of the marker. “She was a tireless good citizen.”

Chapel Hill Nine

The Chapel Hill Nine were arrested for refusing to leave the drug store on Franklin Street after being refused service. The incident led to more sit-ins against segregation.

“As a high school student, Harold Foster was the leader of the Chapel Hill Nine, a group of students who sparked the Civil Rights Movement in Chapel Hill,” the town release said.

“On Feb. 28, 1960, Foster and the other students entered the Colonial Drug Store, sat down at the counter, and asked for the same service afforded to white customers,” it continued. “It is believed to be one of the first such sit-ins organized by high school students. Foster and the rest of the Nine were later arrested for this action, which ignited the movement locally.”

In unveiling the marker with the names added, Chapel Hill Town Council member Allen Buansi put the work of Council and Foster within the movement of civil rights and justice.

“These people will forever be known as people who set us up for the future,” Buansi said.

In the late 1990s, Council and Levy founded the Community Dinner using the setting of a meal to stitch together fragments of the community who might not otherwise have met.

The 22nd annual Community Dinner was held this last April. In her honor, the name is now the Mildred Council Community Dinner.

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Drew Jackson writes about restaurants and dining for The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun, covering the food scene in the Triangle and North Carolina.