Posted February 20, 2022

The Women Who Shaped New Orleans

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The high-energy revelry that makes New Orleans one of the fastest-growing cities in the U.S. also makes it one of the best places to visit when you’re in search of great food, 24/7 bars, non-stop music and a party atmosphere that keeps the good times endlessly rolling in this lively town.

New Orleans, Photo by Unsplash

But venture outside of the French Quarter and you may be surprised to see just how much impact women have had on shaping NOLA over the years. Outdoor monuments, museum exhibitions, and even a popular walking tour all highlight local female icons who fought tirelessly for the right to vote, led the charge against racial inequality, and made the city a better place to reside in by restoring old neighborhoods, integrating schools, or becoming pioneers in the local well-loved restaurant scene. It’s obvious that women have had a major hand in making The Big Easy a much bigger, and easier, place for everyone to enjoy.

In honor of Women’s History Month, we’re highlighting just some of these inspiring female warriors who changed the face of New Orleans forever.

Leah Chase

You don’t need to be rich or be in politics to change society. Sometimes just doing what you love is enough. In 1946, Leah Chase expanded a sandwich stand and lottery business owned by her in-laws into the only upscale restaurant for Black people in New Orleans. Named after her band-leader husband, Dooky Chase’s featured both Creole favorites as well as dishes that were typically available only in eateries that were reserved for white people back then.

Photo by Dooky Chase’s

But more than just a place to enjoy Chef Leah’s dishes, Dooky’s eventually became New Orleans’ hot-spot for civil justice activists throughout the 1960s. Black voter registration campaign organizers, members of the NAACP,  the Riders, Thurgood Marshall, Martin Luther King, Jr. and many other leaders of the civil rights movement met over fried chicken, gumbo, and po-boys as they discussed how to bring racial justice to New Orleans, and the country at large.

Along with making great food, Chase loved art, having studied it in school. But because museums were segregated in the South back then, Chase was 54 when she visited an art museum for the first time. After that she opened the first art gallery for Black artists in NOLO inside her restaurant. And why wouldn’t she, considering she had just become one of the first Black women to sit on the board of the New Orleans Museum of Art.

Leah Chase died in 2019 at age 96, but Dooky Chase is still family-owned and remains one of the most beloved restaurants in NOLA, still hosting big-name celebs such as Beyoncé, Jay-Z, and Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Not bad for a little sandwich stand.

New Orleans Museum of Art

Rosa F. Keller

Born in 1911, Rosa Keller was rich. And not just rich, but my-dad’s-the-president-of-the-Louisiana-Coca-Cola-Bottling-Co rich. But rather than use her money to live the high life, Keller devoted herself to becoming a social activist. Despite being a white woman, her goal was to help her town’s Black community live the same type of lifestyle that the privileged white sector enjoyed every day.

To address the Black family housing shortage that existed during that time in New Orleans, she invested in the construction of what would become one of the first middle-class Black subdivisions in the country. She also fought endlessly to desegregate the school system. This was not a popular choice to make back in those days, and she had numerous death threats against her to prove it, including one from a member of the school board who held her at gunpoint in her own living room while her children were upstairs. This never stopped her from continuing to fight for justice, however, and some years later she funded a lawsuit against Tulane University for not allowing black students to enroll. And, as you might expect from someone so determined to make big changes, her case won.

Sarah Towles Reed

Called out by the Orleans Parish School Board for being disrespectful, disobedient, obnoxious, and excessively vocal, there’s only one reason that Sarah Towles Reed didn’t end up spending most of her school days sitting in the principal’s office as punishment, and that reason is because she was the teacher.

Sarah Towles Reed, Photo by Wikipedia

Having earned a law degree from Loyola University in 1925 before becoming an instructor, Reed used her legal skills to fight for progressive changes in academia. Because male teachers made higher salaries than their female counterparts, Reed drafted a bill which forbid gender-based discrimination in teachers’ salaries, and which was ultimately passed by the Louisiana state legislature.

She then partnered with civil rights activist Veronica Hill to demand that the school board offer equal pay for Black academics as well and helped organize the first Black teachers’ union in New Orleans.

And, after having kept her own marriage a secret until her husband died in a car accident, she finally went public with it and successfully overturned the prohibition against allowing schools to hire married female teachers. The Orleans Parish School Board tried to fire her at that time for having broken their rules, but she fought back, saying that the law did not apply to her because she was now a widow. She won both issues.

Forcing her school to make so many unwanted changes to their policies led to Reed being charged by her superintendent for being subversive, antagonistic to authority, and for exerting “a damaging influence upon the patriotism of the student body” Luckily for her – as well as for Louisiana’s academic sector at large – the union she helped create, along with her colleagues and former students, stood up for her during a public hearing, and the school board finally, though no doubt reluctantly, dropped the charges.

Oretha Castle Haley 

When Oretha Castle Haley was arrested in 1960 for participating in a sit-in at a dime-store lunch counter that was reserved for white people, little did she know that she would end up being part of what is still considered to be one of the most important civil rights cases of the US Supreme Court. The court overturned the arrests of the protesters, asserting that the charges filed against them violated the 14th Amendment.

A portrait of Orthea Castle Haley, by artist Jessica Strahan, as commissioned by NOLA.com

Along with her many racial justice protests and demonstrations, Haley began working on Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty programs, and eventually became a leader for the Black Organization for Leadership Development. In the 1980’s, she took on the role as administrator at Charity Hospital, in order to institute reforms that produced better health care for Black people in New Orleans.

After Haley died of cancer at 48 years old, New Orleans honored this strong civil rights pioneer by changing the name of Dryades Street, which had once been the site of numerous civil justice demonstrations, to Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard.

Women-Owned Businesses

The good news is that 45% of all small businesses in this country are owned by women. The bad news is that women receive an incredibly small amount of venture capital funding compared to men. Women’s History Month is the perfect time to support female-owned businesses and, if you’re heading to New Orleans this month, we have some great suggestions of places you need to check out.

Named one of “America’s Coolest Stores 2018” by Instore Magazine, Ashley Porter’s bohemian luxury jewelry brand, Porter Lyons, draws inspiration from her family’s New Orleans history, as well as the city’s own culture and traditions. Her mission to “preserve culture through design,” comes through in her unique fine jewelry collection which draws inspiration from everything from the symbols of voodoo to the 1920s French Quarter culture, and the astrological placement of New Orleans, just to name a few. As Porter herself has said – and has proven – NOLO is a hub for makers and artists of all kinds.

Footprints To Fitness is a wellness company whose mission is to “help others live a fun and balanced life, while staying true to our New Orleans culture.” Which, of course, means there’s bound to be the occasional Mats and Margaritas get together. Founder April Dupre was a fitness professional for 15 years when she created her wellness community, which offers everything from workplace wellness options to Bridal Boot Camps, group exercise, personal training, and CPR instruction. Oh, and don’t forget the Mats and Margaritas.

Love book clubs? Cool local events? Meeting spaces for social justice discussions? African-centered art, gifts and jewels? Then get thee to the Community Book Center in NOLO. For decades, CBC has been known as “more than a bookstore,”, and owner and manager Vera Warren-Williams’ (or “Mama Vera” as the locals call her) passion for celebrating African cultural heritage has created an iconic social hub that has served her community of New Orleans since 1983.

Porter Lyons, Photo by Instore Magazine

Oh Pilot and Powell, where have you been all of our help-I-have-nothing-to-wear lives? Apparently, you were just a long-time dream for co-owners Kathryn Bullock Joyner and Coeli Hilferty Boron, until they finally opened this high-end luxury clothing store in 2016. Shortly after that, it was featured by the experts at Vogue Magazine as one of the best fashion boutiques in the country, and is still a

Okay, calm down – we haven’t forgotten about pralines, we’ve just saved the best – and most taste-bud-blowing – treat for last. Known as New Orleans’ signature candy, pralines were introduced to Louisiana by French immigrants but it wasn’t long before local French Creoles and Black cooks created a whole new version of the sweet.

Replacing European sugar beets with American sugarcane and substituting local pecans for the traditional almonds, the new recipes became one of the first street foods ever sold in America. Emancipated Black women were known for making their living by selling homemade pralines on the city’s streets as early as the 1860s.

The next time you’re in this confection-loving town, be sure to stop by Leah’s Pralines, a 3rd generation woman-owned business from the 1930s, to find out just why these culinary tastes of heaven became an essential part of life in the Big Easy.

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