Oscar James Dunn was elected the first black lieutenant governor in Louisiana, and the nation, just three years after the Civil War ended. Though, no monument was ever built in his honor.
Instead, New Orleans is pulling down statues of Confederate generals dotting the landscape. Brian Mitchell is trying to change that. In an interview with Splinter News, he told a story about a teacher who once told him “there’s never been a black lieutenant governor of Louisiana” when he was just eight years old. As a child, his grandparents would tell stories of the legendary Dunn, his great great great-uncle.
“As I child, I’d spend my days after school with my great-grandmother,” Mitchell recalled. Her tales “always sort of lead to important patriarchs or matriarchs,” including Dunn. Without knowing, that teacher’s ignorance sparked a flame inside of Mitchell, who is now an assistant professor of history and has spent his career studying Dunn.
A statue of Dunn was slated to be built as part of the reconstruction efforts. He went up against politicians time and again on civil rights issues and his career was cut short after a mysterious death.
“There will be three pictures that hang in the home of every African-American … Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, and Oscar James Dunn.” A smear campaign actively worked against the latter from ever coming to fruition.
As an educated man, Dunn offered his services to black former slaves, who were freed but seeking work on farms. Dunn ensured everyone was paid for their labor. He was so good at it, friends recommended he seek public office.
Nick Weldon, who works for the Historic New Orleans Collection, found some of the historic documents that had Dunn’s history, including quotes from the New Orleans Times attacking Dunn as “the taint of honesty and of scrupulous regard for the official properties,” which was a “serious drawback in innervating a reproach on the lieutenant governor.”
“Basically, they’re like, he is so fair-minded and scrupulous that it’s annoying,” Weldon explained.
At the same time, the governor refused to sign legislation that would protect people of color and the act split their party, who slowly began to lose power. While Dunn and Gov. Henry Warmoth were both members of the same anti-slavery party, it became clear that Warmoth was a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Talk began of impeaching Warmoth. If he was, that would make Dunn the first black governor in the country. Rumors spread that President Ulysses S. Grant was looking to Dunn as a possible vice president after the two met at the U.S. capitol.
One November night in 1871, however, Dunn went to dinner and became violently ill, shivering, vomiting and falling in and out of consciousness. Two days later was dead.
“And there is speculation that he may have been, as they say, ‘dosed’” with poison, according to Mitchell. Four out of the seven doctors who examined his body refused to sign off on the official cause of death, which was “congestion of the brain and lungs, technically classified as natural causes,” according to Splinter News. His family refused to allow an autopsy.
Over 50,000 people came out for the funeral and all of the men who could have poisoned Dunn were his pallbearers.
Weldon explained that $10,000 was dedicated for a monument to Dunn but it was never made and no one knows why.
“All I know is that it isn’t there,” Mitchell said. He did find examples of people mocking Dunn and trying to discredit him after his death. The Krewe of Comus dressed up their king as an ape for the Mardi Gras ball to mock Dunn.
“I argue that it’s at this point that revisionists start trying to take over the narrative and rewrite Dunn as a villain instead of a hero in American history,” Mitchell said.
After Dunn died, everything fell with it. The efforts for civil rights, equality and school integration were snuffed out as Reconstruction efforts fizzled.
“Reconstruction started to go away after that. At the same time, the Ku Klux Klan is just getting started. The White League is just getting started,” Weldon explained.
Mitchell agreed that having the monument to Dunn would probably have helped the state remember their history. Instead, monuments were built to white confederate generals.