Mitchell honors ancestor’s place in New Orleans history

Brian Mitchell is photographed in front of a portrait of his ancestor, Oscar James Dunn. Photo by Lonnie Timmons III/UA Little Rock Communications.

A University of Arkansas at Little Rock professor is bringing to light the long, forgotten accomplishments of a historically significant family member by participating in a public project striving to preserve the erased history of New Orleans.

Paper Monuments is a public art and public history project designed to elevate the voices of the people of New Orleans. The project sought public proposals for prospective monuments, memorials, and public art that honors the erased histories of the people, places, movements, and events of New Orleans’ 300-year history.

In the Paper Monument Posters project, a team of designers, artists, urbanists, and educators have been working since July 2017 to pair scholarly narratives and locally commissioned artwork in telling lost or obscured stories of New Orleans history. One post tells the story of Oscar James Dunn, the country’s first black lieutenant governor and the three-times great uncle of Brian Mitchell, an assistant professor of history at UA Little Rock.

“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,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell, along with artist Jeremy Paten, recently published a Paper Monument Poster highlighting the life and achievements of Dunn in New Orleans’ history.

“The Paper Monuments project is a creative attempt to deal with reimagining public spaces formerly used to display Confederate monuments,” Mitchell said. “The project paired historians with artists to tell the stories that they believe are worthy of public commemoration, in hopes that knowledge of the people and events commemorated by the project will shape the selection of monuments selected to replace the ones removed.”

Dunn was born a slave in 1822 in New Orleans. On Feb. 5, 1831, Oscar Dunn was purchased by his stepfather, James Dunn, a free black stage carpenter. After he was emancipated in 1832, Dunn attended one of the city’s free schools, but was apprenticed to a master plasterer at 14.

After the Civil War, Dunn began a business of writing contracts for 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. Dunn was a rising political star who fought for public education for children, universal suffrage, and civil rights.

Dunn was among the first black men appointed to political office within Louisiana’s Reconstruction government. In 1867, Dunn was elected to the New Orleans Board of Aldermen and was also installed as the assistant recorder of the city’s Second District Court, becoming the first black person to serve in a judicial capacity in the state.

In July 1868, Dunn ran on the Republican gubernatorial ticket with Henry Warmoth and was elected Louisiana’s first black lieutenant governor. In office, Dunn opposed the de-facto re-enslavement of black children through agricultural apprenticeships and helped to form “The Bakery for the People,” a collected designed to foster economic independence.

On Sept. 26, 1868, Gov. Warmoth vetoed the Civil Rights Act of 1866, creating a schism within Louisiana’s Republican party. Dunn helped lead the faction that sought to remove Warmoth from office. In the event of Warmoth’s impeachment, Dunn, as lieutenant governor, would have become governor, making him the first black governor in the U.S.

“By 1871, they had mustered enough support to impeach the governor,” Mitchell said. “Before Warmoth’s impeachment, Dunn became violently ill and quickly died, leading many to speculate that he had been poisoned.”

On the day of Dunn’s funeral, Nov. 23, 1871, a day of mourning was declared, closing all the city’s government offices. An estimated 50,000 people attended Dunn’s funeral, one of the largest in New Orleans history.

What Mitchell finds most ironic about participating in the Paper Monuments is that Dunn was originally meant to have a monument. Louisiana allocated $10,000 to build a monument to honor Dunn, but it was never built. Overall, Mitchell loved participating in the project and hopes that a similar public project will begin in Arkansas to commemorate the state’s forgotten heroes.

“I loved the idea and believe it would be wonderful if Arkansas created a similar project to showcase the state’s little known historical events and figures,” Mitchell said.

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