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On the trail of civil rights in Louisiana

The Louisiana Civil Rights Trail launched earlier this year to commemorate the places and people that blazed a trail for equal rights in the 20th century. Spokesperson LaDana Williams discusses its highlights for visitors.

By Emma John
Published 11 Sept 2021, 06:06 BST
Edgar Chase III and his sister, Stella Chase Reese, stand in front of Dooky Chase’s Restaurant, ...

Edgar Chase III and his sister, Stella Chase Reese, stand in front of Dooky Chase’s Restaurant, opened by their parents.

Photograph by Getty Images

Why was the trail created?

There are so many untold stories of civil rights heroes in this state — people like A Z Young, who organised a 10-day, 105-mile civil rights march from Bogalusa to Baton Rouge. Or Ruby Bridges and Leona Tate, two of the first girls to desegregate the education system when they joined previously all-white schools. They were six years old and they had to be escorted to their classes by federal marshals.

What's next?

We’re putting up a series of markers at important sites, which you can locate via the trail’s website. It was important to us that these are places you can still visit — somewhere to engage with the history, not just read about it. For instance, we’ve unveiled one by the oak trees outside the Old State Capitol, the site of the Baton Rouge bus boycott in the early 1950s. Black folks formed a free-ride service where you could meet under the trees and get a ride to work. That was the model for Martin Luther King Jr’s Montgomery bus boycott a couple of years later.

Do you have any favourite sites?

I think everyone should stop at Dooky Chase’s Restaurant in New Orleans — it’s been serving the most amazing creole food since 1941. Chef Leah Chase owned the place with her husband when it was still illegal for blacks and whites to get together, even for dinner. They secretly hosted a lot of the activists: Doctor King, Thurgood Marshall, Oretha Castle Haley — they all met there. Chef Leah once said “We changed the course of America over a bowl of gumbo and some fried chicken!” 

Why is a project like this important today?

We started creating the trail in early 2019 — the group designing it travelled 3,000 miles, to every corner of the state, speaking with people who’d been on the front lines, collecting these authentic stories. Since then, there’s been an awakening about the African American experience. Right now, people are passionate about these issues and yearning to learn more. The trail reminds you that one person can make a difference and makes you think, how can I contribute?

Where else would you recommend going?

I’d definitely recommend the Whitney Plantation, if you want an understanding of what things were like during slavery. They do a good job of telling the whole story and not just a piece of it.

Learn more about the Louisiana Civil Rights Trail

Discover more stories from the American Deep South

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