Seated together: new Louisiana Civil Rights Trail honors Dooky Chase’s for defying segregation
‘This is hallowed ground’
Sybil Morial admires the first marker for the Louisiana Civil Rights Trail unveiled May 3 at Dooky Chase’s Restaurant in New Orleans. The trail is a project of the Louisiana Office of Tourism led by Louisiana Lt. Governor Billy Nungesser (pink tie). The markers, shaped like a person carrying a protest sign, were designed by artist Ernest M. English (white jacket). (Screenshot of video from Louisiana Office of Tourism)
Seventy years ago, this place defied de jure segregation, said Morial, 88, a former teacher who carefully explained how state laws forbade White and Black people from eating or even meeting up together. “Strange, but that was the law,” she said.
In the mid-1950s, every day at noon, those state laws hindered the lunch options of an all-star, interracial team of civil rights lawyers, including her husband, Ernest “Dutch” Morial, that was working to dismantle segregation in all areas of life in Louisiana.
The legal team couldn’t eat at Black restaurants because national NAACP lawyer Jack Greenberg was White, Morial said. And they couldn’t eat at White restaurants because, like her husband, the other lawyers — A.P. Tureaud, and national NAACP attorneys Constance Baker Motley and Thurgood Marshall — were Black.
A few tables over, Doratha “Dodie” Smith-Simmons, 77, nodded as she listened to Morial. As recently as the night before, she had been shaken out of her sleep by a nightmare about her work trying to undo segregation 60 years ago, with other young members of the New Orleans branch of the Congress of Racial Equality, or CORE.
CORE members were no less determined to change their limited lunch options, but through direct action, not through the courts system. Around 1961, when Smith-Simmons was only 18, a manager at McCrory’s five-and-dime on Canal Street put a gun to the head of her friend Oretha Castle after the two young women sat at the Whites-only lunch counter. “My mind was racing — I thought, ‘I’m going to die today,’” Smith-Simmons said.
Capturing memories broadly — to encompass both the stark terror and the persistent, everyday barriers of Jim Crow Louisiana — is one of the key challenges of the new Civil Rights Trail, as planned by the office of Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser and the Louisiana Office of Tourism. In coming months, 15 seven-foot-tall steel markers will be installed across the state to honor events of the 1950s and 1960s. A single marker now stands near the corner of North Miro Street and Orleans Avenue, a testament to the bravery within Dooky Chase’s Restaurant.
There, Chef Leah Chase and her husband, Dooky Chase Jr., who presided over the restaurant’s bar, welcomed Dutch Morial and his band of pioneering lawyers, along with other integrated groups, who, in Dooky’s upstairs room, ate dinner and made plans for a better world.
Those meetings did not go unnoticed. “We got all kinds of ugly hate letters,” Leah Chase said in a video interview with University of New Orleans historian Michael Mizell-Nelson. “But you do what you have to do, you go on.” In 1965, a crude pipe bomb thrown from a passing automobile landed near the entrance of Dooky’s, ruining the door and sending shards of metal into the restaurant’s bar, though no one was injured.
Morial described the marker as a proper and long-deserved tribute. “This is hallowed ground,” she said. “This place is now getting its deserved recognition. Everyone who walks down the street will now know the role that Leah and Dooky played in making this a more perfect union.”
The fight against racism is ongoing
When Smith-Simmons was 18, she went to jail for the first time after an incident that was also about an interracial meal. It was 1961, and she was protesting at New Orleans Police Department headquarters after officers beat a group of young White CORE activists.
Officers had spied the three young men — Frank Nelson, John Dolan, and George Blevins — walking on General Taylor Street, then turning toward the house of two Black CORE members, Carlene and Patricia Smith (no relation to Smith-Simmons).
“When police saw these three White guys walking in this predominantly Black neighborhood, they wanted to know what they were doing there,” Smith-Simmons said. “Frank and John and George said they were going to eat dinner. And they were beaten,” she said. “I figure that the officers thought, ‘They must be some of those agitators.’ All they really wanted to do was have dinner with their friends,” she said.
While many commemorative plaques across the state speak of past struggles against an historical and distant enemy, like the British crown or the French empire, the Civil Rights Trail honors an ongoing fight against an enemy — systemic racism — whose very existence is often denied, in a battle whose endpoint has not yet arrived.
But is it important that tourists who come to eat at white-clothed tables in Dooky’s dining room leave with a better understanding of racism? Do they need to understand that some heroes of that time are still in pain from being beaten or having nightmares about how close they came to death? Does it matter that the effort is spearheaded by Nungesser, who boycotted Saints games in 2017 because a few players protesting injustice against Black people had “taken a knee” during the national anthem?
Not necessarily — the trail’s goals can be very simple, said historian Raphael Cassimere, Jr., 79, an NAACP Youth Council leader of the time who also cashed his paychecks in Dooky’s bar, a service that the restaurant provided due to the limited access Black people had to banks.
“Racism is probably going to be here forever,” said Cassimere, who became the first Black instructor at the University of New Orleans in 1971. “The markers should commemorate the people who have played a role up to this point. And at the very least, they should be educational, about the people and places involved.”
And while Cassimere said that he wasn’t sure that his goals and Nungesser’s were the same, he still believes that the trail as planned is worthy, to commemorate part of Louisiana’s “200-year history of fighting for first-class citizenship.”
Nungesser’s office created an intensive process — two-dozen meetings over a two-year process — curated by key trusted players including pioneering newsman Norman Robinson and public-relations/advertising executive Glenda McKinley, whose father, radio host Larry McKinley, was supportive of the movement. Midway through the process, Glenda’s son, artist Ernest M. English, woke from a dream with a vision of how the trail’s markers should look: like a steel silhouette of a protester holding a sign.
As the news releases explained, there are also opportunities beyond the text of each marker, through a statewide educational program that will be implemented along with the trail. “Because I wasn’t taught this at school,” Nungesser said. “And there were so many heroes around the state during those times that need to be recognized.”
Beyond Dooky’s, two other steel markers have been installed thus far, one at Little Union Baptist Church, an integral civil-rights hub in Shreveport, and another at the Old State Capitol honoring the nation’s first bus boycott, begun in 1953 in Baton Rouge. Other sites will be announced as contracts are signed with property owners.
Smith-Simmons, who is a full decade younger than the Morials, knew the Chases well and spent most of her time in the area near Dooky’s, because Oretha Castle and her sister Doris Jean Castle, also a CORE activist, lived with their parents around the corner from the restaurant.
The Castles’ house, which stood at 917 N. Tonti St., was simply referred to as Freedom House. Dozens of nationally prominent visitors such as writer James Baldwin spent time there. On a typical night, the house’s floors were filled with young civil-rights workers sleeping on quilts.
Glenda McKinley’s dad played a role in Freedom House, though she didn’t know it until Smith-Simmons told her at the Dooky’s luncheon. “Larry McKinley called Louis Armstrong and told him that Virgie and Johnny Castle, Oretha’s parents, were spending their money to feed and house CORE members.” McKinley told Armstrong that the situation posed financial challenges because Virgie Castle worked as a bartender at Dooky’s and Johnny Castle was a longshoreman who drove a cab at night.
“So Louis said, ‘Send somebody up,’” Smith-Simmons said. And CORE member Don Hubbard drove to New York where Armstrong gave him “a sizable check” for the Castles. “So I told Glenda, I consider your father a civil-rights person because he worked like that in the background. He wasn’t picketing or anything, but there is so much that he did for us.”
“Of course, thousands of people who played secondary but important roles won’t be known,” said Cassimere, who said that his ultimate hope is that the markers might inspire those who see them to join the fight for equity in their own ways. “Because all of us need to go much farther,” he said.
English imagines pedestrians connecting with the marker made in human form. “It breathes,” he said. “People walking by it can feel a part of the movement.”
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