Leah Chase, 96, Creole Chef Who Fed Presidents and Freedom Riders, Dies

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The restaurant became a gathering place for leaders of the civil rights movement to discuss strategy, often with their white allies. At the time, it was illegal for black and white people to mix.

At the restaurant, Mrs. Chase fed hungry Freedom Riders fresh off the road and hosted meetings of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. She let Thurgood Marshall use her telephone to call Robert F. Kennedy even when phoned-in lunch orders were pouring in.

“We were trying to be accepted without hurting anybody,” Mrs. Chase said in an interview with the American Public Media radio program “The Splendid Table.” “In the ’60s, here come these young people — bam! — they would just go in there and break the door down. They were going to take chances, go to jail if they had to. We couldn’t understand that, but it worked. A lot of mistakes were made, but sometimes that’s what it takes to change a system.”

The era’s great musicians and actors, too, came through her door. The restaurant had such a hold on the cultural firmament of the time that Ray Charles rewrote the lyrics to “Early in the Morning Blues” in tribute to the restaurant: “I went to Dooky Chase to get me something to eat./ The waitress looked at me and said, ‘Ray, you sure look beat.’ ”

Mrs. Chase was as compassionate as she was strict, always adhering to a code shaped in large part by her Catholic beliefs. She held up Gen. George S. Patton of World War II fame as a hero and was a fan of baseball, which she often used as a metaphor.

“I just think that God pitches us a low, slow curve, but he doesn’t want us to strike out,” she said in a New York Times interview. “I think everything he throws at you is testing your strength, and you don’t cry about it, and you go on.”

She supported Tipper Gore’s campaign in the 1980s and ’90s against explicit and violent rock and rap lyrics and demanded that young people dress properly when they came to her restaurant, yet she didn’t leave the neighborhood when it fell on economic hard times in the 1980s, and the 896-unit public-housing project across the street became more violent. People urged her to move out. Instead, she renovated.

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