Recently New Orleans has been in the national spotlight over the removal of four city monuments—three statues of confederate war heroes and one monument commemorating the Battle of Liberty Place. These monuments were erected after the end of Reconstruction, years after the Civil War, to reassert white power. But long before these monuments even went up, another monument was supposed to go up—one honoring Reconstruction’s success. But that never happened.
I spoke with a guy named Brian Mitchell. He’s an Assistant Professor of history at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, but he’s from New Orleans. He told me about a guy named Oscar James Dunn.
Ever heard of him? I hadn’t either. But right around the time Dunn died, a journalist wrote, “There will be three pictures that hang in the home of every African American from that day [the day of Dunn’s death] forward. Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, and Oscar James Dunn.”
We know about honest Abe, we know about Douglass (or most of us do, including that he’s dead), but Dunn? Not so much. I wondered how Brian knew about him.
“As a child, I’d spend my days after school with my great-grandmother, and she’d tell family stories,” Brian told me. “And family stories always sort of lead to important patriarchs or matriarchs in the family. And I’m a distant relative to Oscar James Dunn.”
Dunn is Brian’s great great great-uncle. So his family talks about Dunn, and then Brian goes to elementary school.
“It was back in 1976,” Brian said. “And the teacher asked if anyone was related to anyone in Louisiana history that was famous. And I said, ‘I'm related Oscar James Dunn.’ And she said, ‘Well, who's that?’ And I said, ‘Well, he's the first black Lieutenant Governor, not just for Louisiana, but for the entire nation.’ And she said, ‘There's never been a black Lieutenant Governor in Louisiana.’”
And eight-year-old Brian is like, yeah there was.
And what’s even crazier is that this man, Oscar James Dunn, is not only the first black Lieutenant Governor in the U.S., he is born a slave.