BATON ROUGE, La. – On a blustery Saturday afternoon, “Mama” Seabell Thomas was watching over a big pot of gumbo and waiting for one of her LSU ‘babies’ to arrive.
Charles Raulerson, who attended LSU in the mid-80s, drove eight hours from his home in Jacksonville, Florida, over the MLK holiday weekend to visit with Mama Seabell and get some of her southern cooking.
The legendary chef and proprietor of the Silver Moon Cafe wouldn’t have it any other way.
Raulerson and another student, Ted, whom she calls “E.B.”, first met Mama when they were students at LSU and the young men were largely responsible for the Silver Moon Cafe’s early success. The hungry duo came to eat at the restaurant a month after it opened.
“I was using gallon buckets because I didn’t have no pots to cook in,” Mama Seabell remembers. “These boys came in and after they ate , they said ‘this food is good and LSU students don’t know about it.’ They created a flier for me and passed it around the university and that’s how my business just started to grow,” Mama fondly recalled.
Business at the Silver Moon Cafe took off. Famished students yearning for a home-cooked meal filled up the restaurant. Around the same time, the local media caught wind of the hidden gem.
“I started feeding [these] children, red beans, smothered chicken and candied yams,” Mama proudly remembered. “Giving them enough food for two days.”
For decades, Mama served thousands of people at the Silver Moon Cafe. Being in such close proximity to the LSU campus and Downtown Baton Rouge, she fed everyone from students, athletes, coaches and faculty to city leaders, Louisiana newsmakers, and media personalities.
“I had actors, movie stars, elected officials,” Mama excitedly recalled. “Everyone would come there to eat and the ditches [outside the restaurant] were so deep. If you fell in the ditch on the side of the road, you’d have to get somebody to pull you out.”
Many of her customers were regulars who came for daily lunch specials like fried chicken, pork chops, smothered chicken, rice and gravy, white beans and candied yams.
Mama’s life and cafe steeped in vibrant history
Born in Pike County, Mississippi, in 1943 to Mabel and Aaron White, Seabell was the ninth of 13 children. When she was a toddler, the family moved to Centreville, Mississippi, in Wilkinson County where her father purchased land and became a sharecropper.
“He always taught us to be business people and told us to ‘work for yourself’,” she recalled. “He grew cotton, corn, pepper, beans and we had to work in the field, but went to school every day.”
After graduating from Wilkinson County Training School, most of her siblings moved North to Chicago at the urging of their father, a World War I veteran, who wanted his children to escape racism. Seabell insisted on staying in the South to be closer to her father who was ill. She moved to Baton Rouge and stayed with a cousin.
In need of steady income, Seabell cleaned houses and worked at a dry cleaners. On her days off, she hitched a ride with anyone who would drive her to Mississippi to bring fresh produce, food and other essentials to her parents and younger siblings. While working at the cleaners, she met Arthur Lee Thomas, Sr., who was a presser and the two took a liking to each other.
“[Arthur] would bring me home, so I said ‘this is a good catch’ because I got somebody that’s got a car to bring me home once a week to see my daddy and carry food and stuff up there to my mom and little brothers and sisters,” said Seabell.
After her father died, Seabell and Arthur were married and had two children, a girl and a boy. The family of four settled into a house they purchased for $3,000.
Over the next two decades, Seabell became active in public service and welfare causes in Baton Rouge. She focused on issues and programs like poverty, unemployment, early childhood education, voter registration drives and military veterans. Seabell is especially proud of her work with Vietnam Veterans in Louisiana and Mississippi. She helped the veterans get counseling, medical treatment and even monetary settlements for exposure to the chemical Agent Orange, according to Seabell.
In 1983, Seabell took the plunge into Baton Rouge politics.
“I ran for city council in ‘83 and I lost by 100 votes,” Seabell recalled. “I’m glad because I probably would’ve ended up in jail like [some other people] because of greed. So the Lord didn’t allow me to get it and I lost by 100 votes.”
After she lost the election, Seabell found herself in need of a job. By 1985, she and her husband had separated and she had two college-aged children at Southern University.
For the next year, she did odd jobs while tending bar at a dive bar on Plank Road. She was making good money at the bar but said her co-workers were stealing cash and drinking up the liquor. That’s when Seabell heard about an opportunity she couldn’t refuse.
“The old juke box man told me there was a building near LSU and he thought I could do something with it,” she recalled. “I went down there and said ‘I’ll take it! Here’s $400!”
Seabell opened the original Silver Moon Cafe on Nicholson Drive near Brightside in 1986. Before it became her legendary restaurant, it was a “hole-in-the-wall” lounge, as Mama tells it. Black patrons would come to have a beer and listen to live blues.
Years later, she opened a second location at 206 West Chimes Street until she was pushed out to make way for new development in 2007. Still determined, she opened Mama’s Silver Moon Cafe in St. Gabriel. Sadly, two months later, the restaurant was gutted by fire.
Mama decided to keep doing what she believes she was born to do – serve others.
Paying it forward and starting a new chapter
After the fire in St. Gabriel, Mama considered opening another cafe near the LSU campus but decided it was time to retire. Her “retirement” was short-lived and Mama dedicated herself to serving people, something she says she has felt called to do since age three.
Touched by the number of homeless people she saw every day near her North Baton Rouge home, Mama used her social security money to buy food and cook meals. She cooked in her home kitchen and fed anyone who was hungry. Initially, she was feeding about 60 people a day with the help of two volunteers.
“She’d cook the food at home and deliver it to people every day and I could see it was wearing on her,” said daughter Sonyja Thomas. “When her health began to suffer, I told her she needed to slow down.”
As the need grew and word spread about her delicious soulful meals, Mama received a phone call from the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in Greater Baton Rouge. The organization asked her to partner with them and she did. Together, they now feed 1,000 people a week with the help of 24 volunteers.
Facing a new challenge, asking for prayers
Now 80 years old and still as sassy and warm-hearted as ever, Mama is faced with a new challenge – stage 4 uterine cancer.
“My mom was diagnosed at the end of 2023 and underwent two major surgeries,” her daughter Sonyja told UWK. “We’re just trying to help her heal and take it easy so she can start chemotherapy.”
After feeding people for nearly 40 years, these days, Mama needs help lifting the big metal pots she likes to fuss over in her kitchen. Sonyja has moved in to take care of her mother and make sure she’s eating healthy, going to her doctor’s appointments and getting proper rest.
While Mama is taking a much needed break in preparation for chemotherapy, she has an important message and gentle request for all of her beloved “babies” she has fed over the years.
“I love every one of my babies, the joy that I had, feeding them and loving them,” she joyfully recalled. “I thank God [at the age of 80] that I had an opportunity to do this and maintain my health.”
“I will be back. I’ll never give up and I will always have a meal on the table for them, but I need them right now to pray for me and be there to support me.”
Prior to her diagnosis, Mama says she trained the volunteers who are still cooking and feeding the people at St. Vincent de Paul while she focuses on her health.
Family and friends have set up a GoFundMe for anyone who would like to make a donation to help Mama Seabell pay for medical expenses and integrative treatments not covered by health insurance.
You can also leave her a message on Mama’s Silver Moon Facebook page, which her daughter checks regularly and reads to her mother.