A Story of Organizing and New Orleans Too Good Not to Share

Ideas and Issues
CORE sit-in at Woolworth’s in New Orleans

New Orleans   The lead story in one New Orleans paper, The Advocate, was about the harassment that is tragically commonplace in the New Orleans restaurant and service industry.  Another New Orleans paper, The Times-Picayune, in a several part feature had exposed the culture of harassment at the Besh Restaurant Group, employing more than a 1000 workers in 11 restaurants in New Orleans and around the country, leading to celebrity chef John Besh’s resignation.  Given all of that, it was relief to read a story that linked organizing and the service industry, so I’ll share this piece in the New York Times by Bee Wilson called, “The Dinner That Fueled the Civil Rights Freedom Fighters,”

Like any good soup, a bowl of Louisiana gumbo can uplift you even when there is nothing to feel uplifted about. On Sept. 17, 1960, a group of students in New Orleans, three black and one white, sat down at McCrory’s whites-only lunch counter and refused to leave until they were served. The students were convicted of criminal mischief, though that would be overturned by the Supreme Court in Lombard v. Louisiana (1963), a key moment in the fight against segregation. But before this historic meal came another: The sit-in was organized few days earlier over spicy gumbo at Dooky Chase’s Restaurant.

Gumbo makes people braver; it satisfies the soul and gets you talking, says Leah Chase, the legendary African-American chef of Creole cuisine, who is still cooking at 94. “Honey, this is where they planned the thing,” she says over the phone from New Orleans, her voice warm and musical. She remembers the young activists who belonged to CORE — the Congress of Racial Equality — eating a series of lunches and dinners that September in her restaurant’s upstairs room.

The leader was Rudy Lombard, 21, a fiery orator. Also there were Cecil Carter Jr., another black student; Lanny Goldfinch, a white student; and Oretha Castle, a courageous black human rights campaigner whose mother, Vergie, was the bartender at Dooky Chase. It was illegal at that time in the South for blacks and whites to eat in the same restaurant, but this danger didn’t deter the CORE students, who often spoke of sacrificing their lives for the cause. They shared seafood gumbo thickened with filé powder (ground dried sassafras leaves), fried chicken and Lombard’s favorite Italian salad of salami, capers and olives, with Lolis Edward Elie, a local lawyer. Over the food there were intense discussions about what they could and couldn’t do to advance their cause within the law. The activists toasted their plans with glasses of Barq’s root beer. According to Chase, “When they were working, they didn’t drink so much as a bottle of beer.”

In 1960, Dooky Chase was one of the very few dining places in New Orleans where black people could eat with heavy cutlery on pressed linen tablecloths. Growing up, Lombard once told a radio interviewer, he dreamed of eating somewhere like that. His mother worked as a cook for a rich family, and she worked across the street from a fancy restaurant called Pascal’s Manale. As a boy, Rudy longed to eat there. Chase gave him and the other CORE members a taste of that restaurant ease. He once said he saw the restaurant as “an incubator of black people’s aspirations.”

Another activist who regularly ate there was Raphael Cassimere Jr., an emeritus history professor at the University of New Orleans. Cassimere remembers meetings of the N.A.A.C.P., whose office was a few blocks away, where people got “all steamed up,” but as soon as everyone was sitting down with Chase’s gumbo, “you’d be laughing again.” This gumbo was like the food of Louisiana grandmothers, Cassimere recalls, except that “you could get it 24 hours. And it was cheap.” Sometimes, in an extra-generous mood, Chase didn’t charge at all. She fed many of the Freedom Riders, who took a series of perilous bus trips through the South in 1961, trying to use whites-only restrooms and restaurants along the way.

Sometimes the activists arrived at the restaurant dirty, right out of jail. “Poor darlings,” she says. “I used to feel so sorry for them.” Chase sent them around the corner to Vergie’s home to take a bath. And then she fed them.