Mahalia Jackson – Feb. 1st
Mahalia Jackson was one of the most influential vocalists of the 20th century. A contralto gospel singer with a 40-year career, she was integral to the spread of gospel blues in Black Churches in the U.S. and ushered in the Golden Age of Gospel.
Born in New Orleans, she was raised by an aunt when her mother passed away in 1917. She had to quit school in the 4th grade and work at home. She joined the church choir at age 12. At 16, she moved to Chicago with another aunt and eventually joined Greater Salem Baptist Church and the Johnson Brothers, a professional gospel group. She began performing for donations, churches, basements and various venues, including funerals, rallies and revivals.
Mahalia took off with the 1947 recording of “Move On Up a Little Higher”, selling 2 million copies in the U.S. and rising to #2 on the Billboard Charts, a first for a gospel song. She toured extensively and endured much racism and segregation, particularly in the South. Throughout the 1950s, she performed extensively, including a performance at Carnegie Hall.
By 1960, she was an international star; however, the racism she continued to endure, particularly when moving to the Chicago suburbs, led to her involvement with the Civil Rights Movement. She lent her voice and financial support to rallies, marches and demonstrations. She performed at the second March on Washington in 1963 and is said to have urged Dr. King to deliver the Movement’s most famous speech with, “Tell them about the dream, Martin.” She also sang at other monumental events, including the inaugural ball of President John F. Kennedy in 1961, President Kennedy’s funeral in 1963, and at the funeral of her friend, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968.
In April 1970, she returned to New Orleans to appear at the first New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Though she had battled illness for years, she continued to tour, bringing gospel music to the world until her death in 1972 at the age of 60.
Leah Chase – Feb. 10th
Leah Chase, executive chef and co-owner of Dooky Chase’s Restaurant, is the preeminent Queen of Creole Cuisine. Born in Madisonville, LA, she came to New Orleans to live with an aunt to attend high school at St. Mary’s Academy, as her hometown had no schools for African-Americans past 6th grade. After graduating from high school, she held many jobs, but working years later at a French Quarter restaurant would have a great influence on her.
In 1946, she married a jazz trumpeter and bandleader, Edgar “Dooky” Chase, II and began working in the family business, a tavern that sold sandwiches and lottery tickets, eventually transforming it to a sit-down restaurant. In a then-segregated New Orleans, it was the only upscale restaurant where African-Americans could gather and dine. Dooky Chase’s became an integral meeting place for leaders of the Civil Rights Movement to discuss strategy. She fed civil rights icons like Martin Luther King, Jr., the Freedom Riders, musicians and actors; later in life, she fed U.S. Presidents, including George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Mrs. Chase’s chef’s jacket is on display at the National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington, D.C. She was also the inspiration for Princess Tiana in Disney’s 2009 “The Princess and the Frog”, set in New Orleans.
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina damaged the Dooky Chase’s. Under Mrs. Chase’s leadership, the restaurant reopened in 2007 and remains in operation today. Mrs. Chase passed away in 2019 at 96 years old, survived by her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Sources: nola.com, Wikipedia, Food & Wine, February 9, 2019, dookychasefoundation.org/about, NY Times NY edition, June 3, 2019, Section A, Pg. 1
Venerable Henriette Diaz DeLille – Feb. 16th
The Venerable Mother Henriette DeLille was a free woman of color and a Catholic nun. Born in 1812 to a white father and a quadroon mother, Henriette was educated in French literature, the arts and nursing skills and groomed to find a wealthy, White man for a placage relationship. Henriette, also a devout Catholic, denounced this life early on and began working with Church institutions. She was heavily influenced by Sister Marthe Fontier, who opened a school in New Orleans for girls of color. She began teaching at the school at the age of 14. Her desire to work with the poor grew, to the ire of her mother. She tried to become a postulate, but was turned down by the Ursuline and Carmelite Orders because of her African heritage. However, she was not deterred. She was confirmed in 1834. At the age of 24, she had a religious experience and a declaration of faith: “I believe in God. I hope in God. I love. I want to live and die for God.” In 1842, she and two other free women of color, Josephine Charles and Juliette Gaudin, founded what would today become the Sisters of the Holy Family, the second oldest Catholic religious order for women of color. They took vows privately in 1852, as they could not take vows publicly in the Church as women of color. They worked tirelessly caring for and educating the poor, sick and elderly, whether enslaved or free. They opened a hospital, provided nursing care, established a home for orphans and a school for girls that would become known today as St. Mary’s Academy. Mother DeLille died in 1862. In 1988, the Order formally opened their cause with the Vatican for canonization of Mother DeLille. Mother DeLille has completed 2 of the 4 phases for sainthood in the Catholic Church: servant of God and Venerable. She is awaiting verification of a miracle. She is the first U.S. native-born African American whose cause for canonization has been officially opened by the Catholic Church.
Sources: smaneworleans.com, lib.lsu.edu/sites/all/files/scfpoc/history.html (LSU Free People of Color in Louisiana), Wikipedia, www.learnreligions.com, www.sistersoftheholyfamily.com
Dorothy Mae Taylor – Feb. 24th
Dorothy Mae DeLavallade Taylor, an educator and politician, worked in public service for six decades. A graduate of Southern University A&M College, she had been a social activist since the late 1940’s. She led successful efforts to petition NORD to provide equal resources to African-Americans, and in time, playgrounds, swimming pools and facilities were desegregated. She was also vital in the registration of African-Americans to vote.
In 1971, Mrs. Taylor became the first African-American woman elected to the Louisiana State Legislature, and became the first woman to receive the Legislator of the Year Award in 1972. She served in the legislature until 1980, and when her term ended, she became the Director of the Central City Neighborhood Health Clinic operated by Total Community Action Agency in New Orleans. In 1984, then Governor Edwin Edwards tapped her to head the state’s Department of Urban and Community Affairs, becoming the first African-American woman to head a Louisiana State department. In 1986, she became the first African-American woman to serve on the New Orleans City Council, serving from 1986-1994. Perhaps what she is most noted for is her 1992 introduction of an ordinance to ban discrimination in membership of Mardi Gras krewes, a move that paved the way for the desegregation for krewes in the city of New Orleans.
Sources: Historic New Orleans Collection (www.hnoc.org)