Back in 1976, when Brian Mitchell was eight years old, a teacher in his Louisiana school system asked if anyone in the class was related to a famous figure from the state’s history. Mitchell, who had spent his childhood listening to family stories, said he was related to the legendary Oscar James Dunn. But according to Mitchell, his teacher had no idea who that was. “He’s the first black Lieutenant Governor, not just for Louisiana, but for the entire nation,” Mitchell remembers saying. “There’s never been a black lieutenant governor of Louisiana,” his teacher replied.
But there was, and he was Mitchell’s great great great-uncle. “As I child, I’d spend my days after school with my great-grandmother,” Mitchell recalls. And her family stories “always sort of lead to important patriarchs or matriarchs,” including Dunn. Now Mitchell is an assistant professor of history at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, and he’s spent much of his career studying Dunn so future teachers don’t make the same mistake his did some four decades ago.
As New Orleans has been in the national spotlight over the removal of four city monuments—all erected after the end of Reconstruction, years after the Civil War, to reassert white power—Mitchell is bringing attention to a monument of is ancestor that was intended to be built. It was supposed to honor Reconstruction’s success, and it featured a prominent black politician named Oscar James Dunn, who during his relatively short life wrestled with white politicians over civil rights.
Dunn was supposed to be a hero: Around the time he suffered an untimely and mysterious death, a journalist wrote, “There will be three pictures that hang in the home of every African-American … Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, and Oscar James Dunn.” Thanks to some historical amnesia, and a smear campaign against Dunn, that didn’t end up being true.
Dunn was born in New Orleans around 1822 to an enslaved mother. She fell in love with a free man of color named James who bought her and her two children for $800 in 1831. By the time Oscar James Dunn turned 11, he was free: “That changes Dunn’s life forever,” Mitchell says. Now the young Dunn could go to school—and he was good at school. He learned a trade (plastering) and he was excellent at that, too. Dunn grew up to become the head of the black Masonic Lodges in Louisiana, a powerful civic force working on education and youth initiatives for free blacks in the state. Then the Civil War ended, and the Reconstruction era began.
Around this time, “African-Americans are all over the South,” Mitchell says. “They’re released and people need their labor for agriculture.” Dunn opened an office to cater to their needs, and used his education to write contracts for recently released enslaved people, so they could work on plantations without being cheated.
Dunn made sure these newly free people actually got paid for their labor, and he was quite good at that, too—which inspired those close to him to suggest he might make a good politician. Around that time, people of color freed prior to the Emancipation Proclamation (like Dunn) were beginning to enter politics. Dunn ran for office: he was elected to be Louisiana’s Lieutenant governor in 1868.
Dunn was a member of what was known as the Radical Republican party. “They were the progressive party that was trying to extend civil rights to African Americans, especially in the South,” says Nick Weldon, who works for the Historic New Orleans Collection, a museum and research center. Weldon discovered Dunn’s history as he was going through some of his historical documents. He recently found quotes from the New Orleans Times where local Democrats described Dunn, their political opponent, and the “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 says.
Dunn used such bipartisan respect to advance his career: “He became a big proponent for universal male suffrage” as well as civil rights legislation and the integration of public schools, according to Weldon. “He did a lot against a lot of pressure, and in a pretty hostile environment.”
“Hostile” is one way to put it. The Louisiana governor at the time was a man named Henry Warmoth, a white, 20-something Republican from New York. Three years after the Civil War ended, in 1868, he and Dunn were elected on the same ticket. Dunn was two decades older than Governor Warmoth, and at first Dunn believed, perhaps naively, that this young Yankee wanted equality between white Louisianans and their black counterparts. But then Governor Warmoth betrayed Lieutenant Governor Dunn.
“When it actually came time for him to sign a bill that would protect blacks,” Brian Mitchell says, “he says no.” The governor vetoed a bill that would have penalized bus and business owners who did not provide equal services to both races.
When Governor Warmoth refused to sign this civil rights bill, it divided the Republican party. Despite the fact that that both Dunn and Warmoth were members of the same party, they found themselves in direct competition over the most explosive issues of the time. There was a Dunn camp and a Warmoth camp at the time; they had separate police forces, seperate conventions.
“It was complete chaos,” Weldon says. “There was no order.”
Warmoth began to lose power. The Democrats, once Souther Confederates, didn’t accept Governor Warmoth because they saw him as a “carpetbagger,” a foreign leader with little local interest. The Radical Republicans, and in particular the black members of the party, realized quickly that Governor Warmoth was working against their interests. By 1872 another gubernatorial election was on the horizon, and there was talk amongst these factions of impeaching Warmoth.
Meanwhile, Dunn’s career was going well—and if Warmoth were to be impeached, he would become the first black governor in the country. Rumors started flying around the state that that the president of the United States, Ulysses S. Grant, was considering Dunn as his vice president after Dunn visited the capitol. And then, in November of 1871, Dunn went to a public dinner. Two days later, he was dead.
According Mitchell, Dunn fell violently ill soon after attending the dinner, vomiting, shivering, and falling unconscious. He called a few close friends, says Mitchell, but there wasn’t much they could do. “And there is speculation that he may have been, as they say, ‘dosed’” with poison.
Nick Weldon says Dunn’s death was a “shock to the city.” The official cause of death: congestion of the brain and lungs, technically classified as natural causes. But many people, Weldon included, say Dunn’s symptoms were consistent with arsenic poisoning. And four out of the seven doctors who examined the lieutenant governor refused to sign off on the official cause of death.
But, says, Mitchell, “we really just don’t know what happened to Dunn.” His immediate family refused an autopsy, so we’ll never know whether he was poisoned by political rivals. It remains something of a historical mystery. “There have probably been more papers on Dunn’s death than on Dunn’s life,” Mitchell notes.
Dunn died at the age of 49, at the height of his political career. The city was in shock. “Over 50,000 people turned out for the funeral. It’s called the largest in New Orleans’ history,” Mitchell says. “The composition of the crowd was made up of every facet of New Orleans society, black and white. And I always point out that it’s probably one of the oldest second lines in New Orleans history. There are jazz bands that are there.”
The mourners included most of Dunn’s political rivals—the men who could have poisoned him. Governor Warmoth, of all people, was a pallbearer. The second line stretched a mile long, from the intersection of Claiborne and Canal (where Dunn’s house is) to Magazine street. It proceeded to the cemetery. “To say he was well loved in the city would have been an understatement,” Mitchell says.
But that regard was never memorialized the way white Confederate heroes were. Weldon says $10,000 was dedicated to create a monument of Dunn in an act signed by the governor—a couple hundred thousand, in today’s money—but it was never spent. Today, we don’t even really know why. “All I know is that it isn’t there,” Mitchell says.
But he has found evidence of a movement to discredit Dunn: an old drawing from that era of a Mardi Gras ball, where the Krewe of Comus dressed their king up as an ape to mock the lieutenant governor. “I argue,” says Mitchell, “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.”
“When you see this somewhat rising African-American political star at the time of all this strife … The guy dies and pretty much with him was all the gains that he had fought for: Civil rights, suffrage, integration in public schools,” Weldon says.
“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 says.
“By taking down Dunn, they were able to reinforce notions of black inferiority in Louisiana,” Mitchell points out.
So two decades after Dunn died, instead of building a monument for a formerly enslaved man who could have become the vice president, a monument goes up in Liberty Place to honor a white supremacist group, the Crescent City white League.
“All of this progress that was made gets immediately wiped off the slate,” Weldon says. But a hundred years later, Dunn’s descendant, Brian Mitchell, goes to elementary school in New Orleans, where his teacher tells him his ancestor never existed. “My entire life I went to classes, and I loved history. And I heard about Manifest Destiny and I heard about the melting pot, and none of these things seem to explain my condition as an African-American in the United States,” he says. “But Dunn did.”
In our conversation, I asked Mitchell if he thought the scrapped monument to Dunn would have made a difference in how well-known the politician was. “Most certainly,” he said.
This feature is part of Splinter’s project to recruit local, embedded reporters, essayists, and photographers across the country. It was adapted from the TriPod: New Orleans at 300 podcast. Read more from our Think Local series here.