Charlottesville’s popular MarieBette Café and Bakery doesn’t just want customers to enjoy eating their delectable baked goods, they want them to learn something.
The bakery, which has two locations in the city, celebrates Black History Month by creating a cake to honor a different prominent Black activist, entertainer, athlete, scientist or historical figure every day in February.
The chocolate cakes with powdered sugar silhouettes have honored dozens of prominent Black Americans, ranging from performers like rapper Megan Thee Stallion to Evelyn Nicol, an immunologist instrumental to creating the polio vaccine.
“I feel like often Black History Month comes along and people think about certain athletes and entertainers and Martin Luther King, Jr. Not to diminish the contributions or power of that, but what I wanted to do was to just show more of the breadth of contributions that African Americans have made to American society and culture,” said Jason Becton, co-owner of MarieBette.
Becton and his husband and bakery co-owner Patrick Evans started making breads to honor prominent Civil Rights activists during their first year in business. Evans enjoys creating stencil art on breads and cakes, and had the idea to use this talent to promote Black History Month.
The breads received such a positive response that Becton and Evans decided this should become a bigger project. This year they created a cake for each day of Black History Month. Evans creates the stencil art while Becton researches which figures should be honored.
The cakes are on display in the bakery’s two locations and are available for purchase. The confectionary creations are also posted on Instagram and Facebook where even those far from Charlottesville can learn the history.
Becton said they’ve gotten a pretty big response to the cakes on social media. Some honorees have even seen the cakes on social media, and Becton said it’s been exciting to see their reactions.
“Poet Amanda Gorman was the first person we featured, and she saw the post, and commented on it. Lester Holt, the NBC News anchor, also saw the posts and commented on and thanked us. We’ve had a lot of that this year,” Becton said. “So it’s nice to also see how it gets back to the people we’re featuring. It’s just a very small way that we’re honoring them, but it’s appreciated.”
Evans still creates the stencils himself, but his process has changed as the project has gotten bigger. While he used to trace portraits of the individuals and then tediously cut the stencils by hand, he now has machine assistance.
Meanwhile, Becton has dug deeper into his research, becoming passionate about discovering and honoring Black Americans who have made major contributions to society but aren’t household names, in addition to more well-known entertainers and athletes.
“For example, Robert Smalls should be much more well known. He’s a Civil War hero who was enslaved and then he escaped his enslavement with and took a bunch of people with him, commandeered a Confederate ship, managed to get it to Union Territory and then joined the army, and after the war became a US representative,” Becton said. “So it’s been a really cool way for us to almost have community education through Facebook and Instagram and also for ourselves, because I feel like a lot of these people should be well known and they’re not.”
Becton has also shifted some focus to recognizing Black Americans native to Charlottesville.
“I have a friend who works at the McIntire School, and he had his class do a marketing project on what we’re doing for Black History Month. The class gave a presentation and said we should have some more local people. So we started trying to find some local African Americans who contributed to either nationally or globally or even more specifically for this town,” he said.
This year, MarieBette honored Gregory Swanson, the first African American to attend the University of Virginia. In 2021, MarieBette honored Eugene Williams, a former local NAACP president and affordable housing activist in Charlottesville. Becton said he was able to meet Williams and his family when MarieBette honored him with a cake.
“[Williams] is a force in town and he’s done a lot, but not a lot of people know about him or that he exists and it felt good to give him his moment,” Becton said.