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New Orleanian of the Year 2015: Leah Chase 

On the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, we salute a civil rights pioneer

click to enlarge Leah Chase stirs gumbo at her Treme restaurant, Dooky Chase's.

Photo by Cheryl Gerber

Leah Chase stirs gumbo at her Treme restaurant, Dooky Chase's.

With its first issue of each year, Gambit honors a New Orleanian of the Year for all he or she has done for the city. This year's honoree is a familiar one: Leah Chase, the pioneering chef who turns 93 this week and who still can be found working at her iconic Treme restaurant, Dooky Chase's.

  Though many are familiar with Chase's gumbo, greens and hospitality, her role in achieving equality for African-Americans is less discussed, at least by those who have bestowed upon her some of the nation's highest culinary awards for her Creole cuisine.

  On this, the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, we honor Leah Chase for setting a particularly special table: one where much of the Southern civil rights movement was planned.

You won't see her memorialized in grainy black-and-white photographs of civil rights protests, holding up protest signs or sitting handcuffed beneath the scornful gaze of baton-wielding police officers. But in June 2014, when more than 100 veterans of the Louisiana civil rights movement gathered in New Orleans to commemorate the Freedom Summer and honor the civil rights activists of the 1960s, it was Leah Chase's restaurant that everyone remembered.

  "It was just a place where we felt safe," recalled Doratha "Dodie" Smith-Simmons, a key figure in the civil rights movement who was a Freedom Rider and member of the New Orleans chapter of Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).

  "For a lot of the people and students who came down here to work on voter registration, their fondest memory was of going to Dooky Chase's for a meal," Smith-Simmons says. "Because of what Leah and her husband did, people didn't forget that."

  2015 marked the 50th anniversary of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, a crowning achievement of the civil rights movement that prohibited racial discrimination in voting. Its passage came a year after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and in the years leading up to both historic events, Dooky Chase's became a well-known meeting place for leaders and activists.

  A younger generation of New Orleanians may have fond memories of the so-called queen of Creole cuisine and her iconic 5th Ward restaurant. They may remember her fried chicken, or her moss-hued gumbo z'herbes on Holy Thursday, and a few even may know that she was the basis for Princess Tiana, the first African-American Disney princess, in the 2009 animated musical The Princess and the Frog. If they're lucky enough to meet her, they'll remember a seemingly inexhaustible woman clad in a red chef's coat and a warm smile, who moves with ease, greeting customers and exchanging wry bits of wisdom with charismatic sass.

  But the proprietor and chef at the brick mainstay on Orleans Avenue is remembered by an older generation as a steadfast leader for equality and social justice.

The oldest of 11 children, Chase was born in 1923 and grew up across Lake Pontchartrain in the then-small shipping town of Madisonville. She attended a Catholic school for black girls — St. Mary's Academy — in New Orleans, before eventually moving to the city permanently at the age of 18. Here, Chase began her love affair with food service, working for several years at a restaurant in the French Quarter before marrying Edgar "Dooky" Chase II, a trumpet player, in 1946.

  Chase's husband's family opened the Dooky Chase restaurant, then a tavern selling po-boys and lottery tickets, on Orleans Avenue in 1941. It wasn't until Leah Chase came on board that she began tweaking menu items and decor concepts — imitating some of what she had experienced during her tenure in the French Quarter.

  "The saddest thing about segregation for me was depriving people from learning," Chase says. "We didn't even know how to set the tables properly ... because we had no restaurants to go to."

  Since most restaurants in the city were segregated, Dooky Chase's became a known outlier and safe haven; a hub where civil rights organizers and activists — black and white — could come together and strategize their next move over bowls of gumbo and red beans.

  "Early on, when we were trying to bring about some social justice in the city, Leah's restaurant was a place to meet and to see if we couldn't all get on the same page," recalls Moon Landrieu, mayor of New Orleans from 1970 to 1978.

  Don Hubbard, a local leader of desegregation efforts and a civil rights visionary, says Chase and her husband were "quiet warriors" who would accommodate the activists in a private upstairs dining room and always made sure that no one went hungry.

  "They would always be gracious to us, even to those who couldn't afford it. She's always been able to walk a fine line, and she used food as an ambassador to broaden our community," Hubbard remembers.

  Chase is characteristically modest about her role in the movement.

  "My job was just to feed people," she says. "People like me could just be cooperative and support them, and that's what you did. In New Orleans, you don't do anything without eating. So they would come here and I would make gumbo and fried chicken, and they'd have lunch and plan their moves. Sometimes it was hard and sometimes it was frightening, because you didn't know who was going to come back and who wasn't."

  Despite Chase's humility, Hubbard says, she was an influential person, revered for more than just her hospitality, cooking and kindness.

  "Leah was always someone we could talk to in confidence," he says.

  "If you were saying something that was more militant, she had her own way of extending the message, of making it more palatable," Hubbard says. "She had her own style while she was stirring the pot. Sometimes she'd pull us over and say, 'You really want to do it like that? Maybe you ought to try a different approach.' She always spoke with some power and our ears always perked up and listened because (we) thought that her opinion was worth something."

A longtime member of the NAACP, Chase recalls that many felt the civil rights movement at the time was "moving too slow," spurring a younger generation of activists to consider more radical approaches.

  "We were always working to better the conditions for black people," Chase says. "But the (NAACP) leaders, like A.P. Tureaud and Thurgood Marshall, they thought we could move into the regular stream without offending anybody. Sometimes you can't do that. You're gonna offend somebody."

  Dooky Chase's was near 917 N. Tonti Street, the home of Virgie Castle, a longtime bartender at the restaurant and the mother of civil rights activists Doris Jean Castle and Oretha Castle Haley. The house on N. Tonti became a magnet for activists at the time, a place where Freedom Riders and migrating revolutionaries, including James Farmer and James Baldwin, would crash whenever they were in town.

  "If we didn't eat there, we had food delivered from there," Smith-Simmons, who also stayed at the Tonti Street home on occasion, said of Dooky Chase's. She recalled how attorneys with the movement would deliver Chase's food to the Orleans Parish Prison when she and fellow activists were arrested.

  While Chase says she never really was frightened, she knew operating an integrated restaurant and supporting the civil rights movement was a dangerous endeavor in the segregated South; blacks attempting to organize the masses to vote were attacked, jailed and sometimes killed. Chase brushed off threats, even when someone threw a pipe bomb into the front of the restaurant.

  "It hit the bar, tore the bar up and put a hole in the door, but nobody was hurt," Chase recalls. "It didn't frighten me."

  "They were just outstanding citizens that saw something that needed to be done and did it, regardless of the consequences," says Smith-Simmons. "In those days, that was very brave of them to do."

In the years following passage of the Voting Rights Act, Chase's restaurant remained a mainstay on the activist circuit and a neutral ground for meetings and visiting dignitaries.

click to enlarge Visitors fill Dooky Chase's dining room, which is decorated with works by African-American artists. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber
  • Visitors fill Dooky Chase's dining room, which is decorated with works by African-American artists.

  Chase peppered the restaurant's multicolored dining rooms with works by African-American artists she purchased throughout the years to foster artistic growth among black artists.

  Throughout her life, Chase has garnered accolades and awards for her constant push for progress and equality. The Southern Food & Beverage Museum named a permanent gallery in Chase's honor in 2009, she was inducted into the prestigious James Beard Foundation's Who's Who of Food & Beverage in America in 2010, and in 2011, the American Civil Liberties Union presented her with its Ben Smith Award for her efforts to promote racial equality.

  Chase is still a constant presence in her restaurant's kitchen and dining rooms, where she stops to chat with friends and strangers and, if prompted, is happy to talk about her life. She likes to recount the degrees and accomplishments of all her grandchildren and says she hopes that her grandson, Edgar Chase IV, a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, will take over the business one day.

  Underlying Chase's benevolent disposition and warm exterior is a determined, do-it-yourself attitude.

  "We've come a long way but I think people need to do better about coming together and understanding one another," she says. "If you get to a certain place where you're on your feet, then you got to help somebody else on their feet. Whatever I can do, I try to do it.

  "You have to get involved today, honey. Everybody has to make a difference."

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