Saturday is Juneteenth, the day celebrating the emancipation of enslaved African Americans. This week, it was recognized as a holiday by the city of Chicago, the state of Illinois and the U.S. Congress.
For award-winning chef Erick Williams of Hyde Park’s Virtue, the significance of the holiday, which marks the date when enslaved people in Texas were emancipated — more than two years after slavery was outlawed in accordance with the Emancipation Proclamation, is rooted in access to information and resources.
“You have a group of people who are enslaved and they don’t realize that they’re free, because the information is not made available to them,” Williams said. “(And) when I look at communities throughout our country and cultures throughout our country, there’s still not an even distribution of resources or access to those resources. As we celebrate this moment, we have to continue to strive to make sure that people have opportunity and that we’re all securing those inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
For his part, Williams tries to make sure people in the culinary world have access to the things they need to thrive.
“I work diligently to create space that feels equitable and lends opportunity to folk of color, indigenous and minorities across the board. I also take a concentrated effort in making sure we’re developing the next wave of leadership, which I feel is very important. What happens in many industries is, we train a lot of people to do very specific tasks, and that doesn’t equip people to problem solve, make decisions under fire, and to lead a team,” Williams said.
Williams, who was among the first recipients of a medal of honor from Mayor Lightfoot for his contributions in 2020, said he hopes to use his platform “to get the word out as far as we can that there is a stronger need for kindness in hospitality … if we treat people better we’ll end up with better results. It was humbling to receive a medal of honor, but it only encourages me to get out and do more work and that’s what we’re doing.”
In addition to promoting his mindset to the hospitality industry, Williams says he also hopes Virtue makes people more aware of Black contributions to American food.
“Black women took the best of technique, skill and ingredients from every single culture that stepped foot in the South, and they created and curated amazing meals,” Williams said. “I’m in some ways entitled and a beneficiary of that labor that was put forth. It allows me both to honor that labor and to celebrate the contribution that Blacks have made in this country through food, among many other things. But I happen to focus on food and what that does for people by way of satiation, but also by way of healing.”