10 For many Cumberland County residents, the annual black-eyed peas dinner was a decades-old Southern tradition.
Each New Year’s Day, thousands of people gathered at the Crown Expo Center to share bread — and the signature black-eyed peas and other fare — with others from the community.

The dinner, which was free, hasn’t been held since January 2020 because of concerns related to COVID-19. After being put off for several years, organizers said this seemed like a good year to stop the event.

“At this point, there are no plans to have the black-eyed peas dinner in the future,” Cumberland County District Attorney Billy West said.

West and Cumberland County Register of Deeds Lee Warren have hosted the event for years, but its roots date back much further.

“I kind of have mixed emotions,’’ Warren said Dec. 28. “It’s a phenomenal amount of work and a phenomenal amount of expense. Seems like with COVID, along January of this year and February, it seemed to be getting a little better. As the year progressed, it started getting worse. It’s kind of like a roller-coaster.

“We can’t seem to get a grip on all of the illness. All the COVID,” he added. “We just don’t feel comfortable getting people together like we did. That’s a lot of people. We can’t risk making anyone sick.”

The prevailing theme of the dinner evolved from a long-held belief that eating black-eyed peas would bring you good luck and prosperity for the coming year. Along with the black-eyed peas, participants were served such down-home country favorites as pork barbecue, candied yams and collard greens. You also would find dignitaries from the Fayetteville area. For many, it was the ideal setting to see and be seen.

“We had Larry Chason who provided gospel music. We just always had such a nice time,” Warren said. “We had congressmen every year come. Occasionally, somebody from the senate. We had the lieutenant governor come before. It was just a good way to get together and renew old friendships.”

The idea of a single black-eyed peas dinner came about when former Cumberland County Sheriff Ottis Jones and local attorney Willis Brown held separate New Year’s Day dinners, inviting their friends to come.
Following years of that, everyone who had attended the separate functions gathered together for the one meal, Warren said. That ended in 1987 with the death of Jones. Warren, at the time a county commissioner, and Owen Spears, who was elected to the N.C. General Assembly in 1992, started the tradition again at the suggestion of Warren’s father.

“Owen and I did them together,” Warren said.

When Spears got out of the General Assembly, Warren partnered with District Attorney Ed Grannis. Eventually, West joined the hosts and carried on with Warren after Grannis died, the register of deeds said.
“So, Billy and I had been doing it ever since,” Warren said.

According to the old Southern superstition, eating collard greens on New Year’s Day will bring you dollar bills and eating black-eyed peas will bring you pennies throughout the upcoming year.

“Many of the folks who helped us each year have either passed away or are not able to help us anymore,” West said. “After not having it because of COVID the last few years, we decided this was the best year to stop it. We will miss it. It was a great community tradition.’’

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