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Unwrapping the History of African American’s Role in Candy

Candy can satisfy a sweet tooth and give us a little pick-me-up in the afternoons. But did you know that candy is intertwined with African American history?

Susan Benjamin gives a presentation about the history of candy in America at the Alexandria Black History Museum. (Photo: Elizabeth Moscoso)

Alexandria, VA – Candies, delicious little goodies that can satisfy a sweet tooth and give us a little pick-me-up in the afternoons. But did you know that the story of candy is intertwined with African American history?

“The history of African Americans in the universe of sugars and sweets is pretty much not addressed or addressed in the wrong way,” said Susan Benjamin, candy historian and the owner of True Treats Candy, the nation’s only research-based historic candy company.

Benjamin gave a little taste of sugar and candy’s history at The Alexandria Black History Museum with a lecture examining the African American role in American candy making and unwrapped many stories that aren’t widely known such as the story of Norbert Rillieux.

Rillieux, a mid-19th century engineer of African American descent, was sent by his father to Paris at the age of 23. Not only did he become the youngest engineer professor in Paris, he also invented an evaporating system to be used in making sugar.

“He came back to North America and he went from one plantation to another, teaching them how to use the evaporation system,” said Benjamin. “And that system is still in use today.”

Sweet Freedom 

The first commercial candy in the U.S. premiered in 1806 and is still made the same way! Gibralters are of the sugar stick or “soft paste” family with a sweet, melt-in-your mouth texture. They’re hand-cut in the original style with the original ingredients. Comes in peppermint or lemon. Can be ordered still today at

The first commercial candy company’s story is one that links both slavery abolitionists and female empowerment. In the 1800’s, when women had very little prospects or freedom, and couldn’t even vote, Mary Spencer from Salem, Massachusetts created a candy called Gibralter. After having incredible success selling her confections on the steps of the First Church in Salem, she bought a horse and buggy and took to selling from town to town. Little did people know, the buggy had a false bottom.

“[Spencer] would take escaped slaves to the port where they could go to the Bahamas, then back to Africa,” Benjamin says with a smile. “So the history of the first candy in the country is a story of resistance.”

Benjamin’s fascinating research and findings are compiled in her new book, “Sweet as Sin: The Unwrapped Story of How Candy Became America’s Favorite Pleasure.” Be sure to check it out, as well as True Treat’s Candy, to order a little taste of history.

ICYMI: American Culinary Diet Has Roots in Slavery

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