There are many ways in which you may have been exposed to the legacy of New Orleans Chef, Leah Chase. Of all those ways, odd’s are your school history books weren’t one of them. I must admit, I personally remained ignorant to her importance in both the culinary world and Civil Rights Movement until recently. It wasn’t until I moved to New Orleans in 2018 that I truly learned of this beloved Creole queen. The more I learned, the more I began to question why her legacy fell to the wayside in my public education of the Civil Rights Movement. It didn’t take long for me to remember that our history books have been quietly, but purposeful edited to remove female influence. Especially those of a black female. Especially those of a black female cook.
We all (hopefully) learned of Dr. Martin Luthur King Jr., The Freedom Riders, Rosa Parks, and Thurgood Marshall. But, who fed them? Leah Chase’s restaurant, Dooky Chase, which originally started as her father in law’s street corner stand where he sold lottery tickets and po’ boys, became a meeting place for civil rights leaders. During this time, segregation divided the south and provided few safe spaces for mixed races to come together so they could discuss their strategies for moving forward with civil rights. Though such meetings were illegal, Leah Chase and her husband, Edgar Lawrence “Dooky” Chase Jr., provided that place. Local leaders would meet in the upper room of Chase’s restaurant to create change over a plate of hot food. It’s safety and security was shook when a pipe bomb was thrown and exploded outside the restaurant. Chase was not phased. She’s quoted,
“That didn’t scare me a bit. I guess I’m crazy.”
Dookie Chase would serve as a political and social hot spot for years to come; serving the likes of Barack Obama, Ray Charles, the NAACP, James Baldwin, Quincy Jones, and Jesse Jackson. One of my favorite stories I came across was one about her giving a motherly slap to President Barack Obama for daring to put hot sauce in her gumbo. She received numerous awards, honorary degrees, and was recently featured in Beyonce’s Lemonade. Her life was also used as inspiration for Tiana in Disney’s Princess and The Frog, based in New Orleans and it’s surrounding bayous.
A collector of art, Chase was also known for showcasing the works of world renowned and up-in-coming black artists in her restaurants. She served on the counsel for both the New Orleans Muesum of Art and The Art’s Counsel of New Orleans.
We have to pay attention to one another, regardless of how someone may look or act, look again. Looking at people is like looking at art. I may look at a painting and dislike it because I don’t understand it but then I’ll look deeper and I’ll see things better.Leah Chase
New Orleans, the birthplace of Chase, has been honoring her life since her death on June 1st in true Crescent City fashion with second lines, brass bands, and jazz. Though many of these events have been held near her resturant in Treme, the music of her mourners can be heard throughout the city’s streets.
As we watch activism continue to evolve, Leah Chase reminds us that activism takes many forms and holds no bounds. Chase demonstrated her activism in a way that rang true to her – through bringing people together over a pot of gumbo. Chase truly believed in the power of food and the peace that comes with breaking bread. This activism, woven into her everyday life, also reminds us that true change comes from a consistent lifestyle of activism. It’s not only making time for a parade or march. It’s how you use your life, even in it’s smallest moments, to serve your cause.
So, please, when teaching your children about the great civil rights leaders, don’t forget about the woman who kept their bellies full and their meetings safe. Don’t forget about Leah Chase.