Leah Chase, who died this month, was an American civil rights activist and chef in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Her restaurant is well-known. It serves people from all walks of life, from local men and women to famous personalities, such as baseball player Hank Aaron and singer Beyoncé. Two other customers, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, served as president of the United States.
But people who never visited the restaurant likely still know Chase, sort of. She was a main inspiration for Princess Tiana in the Disney movie “The Princess and the Frog.”
Chase’s name at birth was Leah Lange. She was born in 1923 in Louisiana. At that time, many places in the southern states were segregated. In other words, people were divided by race and skin color. In her town, children with light skin went to one school; children with dark skin went to another. The schooling for children with dark skin stopped after six years.
So her parents sent their daughter to New Orleans, the largest city in the state, to complete her education at a Catholic high school. A report in The New York Times newspaper says she was a gifted student and finished at age 16.
Soon after, she began working as a waitress at a top restaurant for white people in the city’s historic French Quarter. There, she became interested in fine dining – high quality food in a beautiful space.
In time, Leah Lange married a musician whose family owned a restaurant. He – and the restaurant – were both named after his father, Dooky Chase. Dooky Chase’s at that time was an easygoing shop where black people could buy sandwiches and lottery tickets.
But Leah Chase had other ideas. She added white tablecloths and Creole food that mixed French, Spanish, African and other traditions.
In time, Dooky Chase’s became the city’s first top restaurant for black visitors and locals. To many, it was a place to celebrate special events: a winning sports team, success in school or a night with someone special, a writer from New Orleans told The New York Times.
It was also a place where civil rights leaders, such as Thurgood Marshall and Martin Luther King, Junior, came. They were fighting for equality among people of all races and colors.
Dooky Chase’s became known as a place where activists could meet and plan campaigns. The restaurant broke local segregation laws by letting black and white customers sit together.
Chase said simply she did what she thought she had to do.
In the early 2000s, a group of writers were seeking ideas for a movie about a princess in New Orleans. They easily found Leah Chase, says a report in The Oprah Magazine.
Chase said she spoke to the film’s writers for hours about her life. In time, the Disney movie “The Princess and the Frog” told the story of a hard-working African-American waitress who dreams of owning a restaurant.
“Now everybody wants to be Tiana,” Chase told the magazine in 2010. “I think it’s fantastic.”
Leah Chase continued to work and serve others well into old age. She published cookbooks and collected paintings by African-American artists. She met with customers and supervised the restaurant’s kitchen. She said food helped people feel better.
In 2015, she told The Associated Press, “… Sometimes people will come in and they’re tired. And just a little plate of food will make people happy.”
Leah Chase died on June 1 at the age of 96. She and her husband of 70 years had 4 children, 16 grandchildren and 28 great-grandchildren.
Earlier this week, Chase’s family released a statement to reporters. They called Chase a supporter of civil liberties and a “believer in the Spirit of New Orleans.”
I’m Kelly Jean Kelly.
Kelly Jean Kelly wrote this report based on reports from the Associated Press, New York Times, and The Oprah Magazine. George Grow was the editor.
Words in This Story
inspiration - n. a force or influence that inspires someone
Quarter - n. a part or area of a city
sandwich - n. two pieces of bread with something (such as meat, peanut butter, etc.) between them
lottery ticket - n. a way of raising money for a government in which many tickets are sold and a few of the tickets are chosen by chance to win prizes
fantastic - adj. extremely good
kitchen - n. a room in which food is cooked