For generations, visitors and locals have sung the praises of chef Leah Chase and the Creole cuisine at her family’s Dooky Chase Restaurant. This month, however, the chef and restaurateur will be lauded in an entirely different way when the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Louisiana presents Chase with its Ben Smith Award for her work promoting racial equality.
“Leah Chase is a true beacon of civil liberties in Louisiana and in the United States,” says Marjorie Esman, the ACLU of Louisiana’s executive director. “We’re proud to honor the woman who helped bring Ben Smith’s dream of racial equality closer.”
The Ben Smith Award is the highest honor the local ACLU’s chapter presents each year. It’s named for a late civil rights attorney and founder of the ACLU of Louisiana who served jail time for his work to end segregation prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Chase was born in 1923 and spent her early years with her family in a rural setting in Madisonville. At age 13 she moved to New Orleans to attend high school and live with relatives in the city. She married Edgar Chase Jr. in 1946 and eventually went to work at the restaurant her husband’s family ran in the 5th Ward.
As the civil rights movement began revving up, Dooky Chase Restaurant emerged as a meeting place for its organizers and leaders and as a safe haven for people from the white and black communities to gather. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was a guest at Chase’s table, and in the decades that followed many other civic and government leaders would come calling at Dooky Chase Restaurant, including President Barack Obama during his 2008 campaign.
Though Chase began her restaurant career without formal culinary training, her acclaim has brought her honorary degrees from many universities, including a doctorate of culinary arts granted by Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island in 2009. That same year, the Southern Food & Beverage Museum re-named one of its exhibit galleries in her honor as the Leah Chase Louisiana Gallery.
Former New Orleans mayor Marc Morial, now chief executive officer of the National Urban League, will present Chase with the award at an event at the Convention Center on Feb. 12. For event details, see www.laaclu.org.