When Brian Mitchell was a child growing up in New Orleans, Louisiana, he would stay with his great-grandmother after school and ask her to tell him family stories.
His great-grandmother told him tales of his great-great-great uncle, Oscar James Dunn, who was the first elected African-American lieutenant governor of a U.S. state.
Proud of his famous relative, Mitchell, now an assistant professor of history at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, recalled how he once happily told his second-grade teacher about Dunn.
His teacher’s response: “There has never been an African-American lieutenant governor in Louisiana.” At the time, there had been three: Dunn, Pinckney Pinchback, and Caesar Antonine.
“What was surprising to me was that the teacher did not offer to look it up,” Mitchell recalled. “My great uncle was the equivalent to Barack Obama in his time, but it wasn’t until I got to college that I began hearing about these political figures in any sort of detail.”
Dunn was born a slave in 1826 in New Orleans. His stepfather, James Dunn, was a free man of color and stage carpenter for James Caldwell, an English actor who founded the St. Charles Theatre and New Orleans Gas Light Company.
James Dunn arrived in the city in 1819 and shortly thereafter began courting a slave named Maria, the mother of Oscar Dunn. On Feb. 5, 1831, James purchased Maria and her children from George P. Bowers, a commission merchant living in the city and freed them the following year on Dec. 13, 1832.
Although illiterate himself, James Dunn paid for his stepson, Oscar, to be educated at one of the city’s free black schools. Dunn was later apprenticed and trained as a plasterer. Dunn plied his skills as a plasterer for a number of years before deserting his post after an argument with his employer, Thomas Dryden, a white contractor and retired vocalist. Having abandoned his job, Dunn began a new but short-lived career as a music teacher.
Although a popular and skilled teacher, Dunn was forced to stop giving musical instruction after a well-known free black music teacher, Thomas J. Martin, was discovered to have had a series of affairs with his pupils, all of whom were the daughters of well-to-do white families.
“People begin to scrutinize these African-American music teachers, and Dunn no longer believed it was safe to take on pupils,” Mitchell noted.
After the Civil War, Dunn began a business of writing contracts for the freed slaves. His contracts assured former slaves that they would be paid fairly by plantation owners and required that education be provided to their children.
“Plantation owners needed workers, and free blacks needed protection,” Mitchell said. “This helped Dunn build trust in the former black slave community. In the free black community, he was the leader of the black Freemasons in the state. Dunn’s connection to both communities made him the ideal candidate for leadership.”
Dunn was a rising political star who fought for public education for children, universal suffrage, and civil rights. In 1867, Dunn was elected to the New Orleans Board of Aldermen and proposed free public education for all children between ages 6 and 18.
“Dunn was later given the post of assistant recorder in New Orleans, which is similar to a judge,” Mitchell said. “The first case Dunn hears as a city judge, both the plaintiff and the defendant objected to him being the judge, and they both claimed that none of the laws in the state recognized African-Americans as citizens. Dunn quelled the dissent by levying fines on both parties for contempt of court.”
In July 1868, Dunn ran on the Republican gubernatorial ticket with Henry Warmoth and was elected Louisiana’s first African-American lieutenant governor.
“When he became lieutenant governor of Louisiana, Dunn immediately bumped heads with the white governor,” Mitchell said. “Blacks in the state believed that (Warmoth) would be an advocate for African-Americans rights. However, the first bill the integrated legislature put forth was a civil rights bill, which the governor promptly vetoed.”
Louisiana Republicans split their support between Warmoth and Dunn. The Radical Republicans, who supported Dunn, mounted an effort to impeach Warmoth for corruption.
At the height of Dunn’s political career, just before he was poised to become the first African- American governor of Louisiana, he mysteriously died on Nov. 22, 1871, after a brief and sudden illness.
“It was right on the verge of Warmoth’s impeachment that Dunn dies,” Mitchell explained. “Had Dunn lived, he would have become the first African-American governor in the U.S. Many of his supporters contended that Dunn’s conveniently timed death was due to poisoning.”
Dunn’s death was the target of speculation and political intrigue. Dunn’s symptoms were consistent with arsenic poisoning, according to Nick Weldon of the Historic New Orleans Collection.
Four of the seven doctors who examined Dunn’s body refused to sign an official cause of death because of their suspicions of murder. However, the cause of Dunn’s death – whether natural or murder – remains unknown since his family refused an autopsy.
Mitchell, who wrote his dissertation about Dunn, found a document that alludes to the idea that Dunn was threatened by a political rival shortly before his death.
“Thomas Chester Morris maintained that Pinchback (who became lieutenant governor after Dunn’s death) approached a friend of Dunn’s and said he had information that would ruin Dunn’s family if the information got out,” he said.
Mitchell believes the information may have been an allegation that Dunn and his wife, Ellen Boyd Marchand, who was a widow, may have had an affair while Ellen’s first husband was still alive.
“Dunn had formed a broad-based coalition of blacks and whites, Creoles and Anglo, free men and former slaves, and Catholics and Protestants on the basis of morality and decency, ” Mitchell said. “With Louisiana being divided between Catholics and Protestants, he didn’t bring religion into it. He ran on a very moral ground. He didn’t accept bribes, nor did he smoke, gamble, or drink. The allegations that he had taken part in an adulterous affair would have been extremely scandalous at the time. A report like this could have derailed early efforts for civil rights.”
An estimated 50,000 people attended Dunn’s funeral, one of the largest in New Orleans history. His unexpected death left his widow financially destitute and a fundraising drive was started on behalf of the family. Frederick Douglass, former slave and noted black orator, helped to raise funds for the family, and the state legislature passed a bill to pay the mortgage on the lieutenant governor’s home. Louisiana allocated $10,000 to build a monument to honor Dunn, but it was never built.
Mitchell is in talks to have his book on Dunn’s history published as both an academic book and a graphic novel for younger audiences.
“I remember thinking as a child that the only things we were taught were that our ancestors were slaves and then Martin Luther King Jr. came,” Mitchell said. “There is this huge absence of discussions of free African-Americans before the Civil Rights movement. I thought Dunn’s story might be a good draw to children to study African-American history.”