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Dooky Chase gumbo fueled civil rights movement

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NEW ORLEANS — At the famed Dooky Chase Restaurant, where veterans of the civil rights movement still recall making plans to change the world over bowls of gumbo, black and white foodies now line up for Leah Chase's Creole cooking.

Back before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, however, some customers had to enter discreetly and meet secretly. In the 1950s and '60s, as the movement gained steam, many of its leaders dined at the restaurant, then used a back room for meetings.

It was here that plans were drawn up to help the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. stage sit-ins and to shelter others trying to further the cause of racial equality.

Now, Dooky Chase Restaurant, run by Leah Chase and her husband, Edgar "Dooky" Chase Jr., is among a dwindling number of civil rights landmarks remaining in New Orleans.

"I feel like in this restaurant we changed the course of the world over bowls of gumbo," said Leah Chase. "That's how we always did the planning — over gumbo."

Around New Orleans, many sites where blacks and whites gathered to chart the city's move into an era of greater equality are succumbing to the rigors of time. The flooding left by Hurricane Katrina worsened the situation.

William Frantz School, where 6-year-old Ruby Bridges' registration in 1960 effectively broke segregation in education and is celebrated in a Norman Rockwell painting, is being renovated. But McDonogh 19, where three other black first-grade girls entered the same day as Bridges, is abandoned and decaying.

Other homes and sites — including the former Woolworth building where sit-in protests took place over segregation of lunch counters — are unmarked.

Chase, now 89, became a member of the James Beard Foundation's Who's Who of Food & Beverage in America in 2010, the prestigious organization that honors the country's most notable chefs.

She said many of the nation's advances in equality were planned at her tables more than 50 years ago.

A long-time NAACP member, Chase had one of the few relatively upscale restaurants for blacks in those days. So it only made sense for civil rights leaders to gather there, she said. .

"Black people had working men-type restaurants in those days, places to get sandwiches," Chase said. "But as far as nice restaurants, like they had on the other side of town, there weren't many."

There were even fewer where whites and blacks could sit down together.

"We frequently met in the upstairs room, the stairs were behind the dining area and nobody was aware you were up there," said Raphael Cassimere Jr., a retired University of New Orleans history professor who attended meetings to plan civil disobedience. "That room was always full of people active in the movement, because it was not easily accessible for leaks."

The list of civil rights luminaries who climbed the stairs was extensive. Many were confidants of King, though he never dined there. "Martin Luther King never ate here," Chase said. "But his father did. We called him 'Big Daddy King.'"

The meetings could be heated, Cassimere said.

"Some of them in the mid-'60s when we were planning the registration to vote movement could get pretty testy," he remembered. "But then we'd all sit down and eat together and leave (as) friends again."

It was hard to accept the young firebrands intent on making changes quickly rather than at a steady pace, Chase said.

"The NAACP was challenging laws and making progress," Chase said. "That was too slow for the young people coming into the movement. But our tendency was to worry about losing what ground we had gained."

New Orleans generally was spared the Ku Klux Klan violence that erupted around the South, though it was still a violent time, said Tulane University history professor Larry Powell.

"Especially during the efforts for school integration," Powell said. "But it was always tense. There was always the potential for violence."

And Powell said whites who were part of mixed-race civil rights groups were taking a risk. "You were always inviting trouble."

Chase remembers the camaraderie and the sense of purpose much more clearly than the dangers.

"Someone threw a pipe bomb at our door, but it only did a little damage," she said. "And they would send you ugly notes, but I would just brush them off."

The famous upstairs dining room had become office space before Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005. It's now used only for storage, Chase said.

"I've seen a great change," Chase said. "People tell me, well it's still a long way from perfect, but I say, 'Of course it is, this isn't heaven it's earth, and nothing is perfect here.'"