A Monumental Achievement: UA Little Rock Professor Authors First Graphic History Book

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 has taken his research into Reconstruction history to new heights with the launch of a graphic history book that he hopes will be the first in a series on racial history and justice in the United States.

Dr. Brian Mitchell, assistant professor of history at UA Little Rock, wrote the manuscript for “Monumental: Oscar Dunn and His Radical Fight in Reconstruction Louisiana” four years ago. He worked with Nick Weldon, an editor, and Barrington Edwards, an illustrator, to bring Dunn’s story to life in the 256-page book.

“I believed that Dunn’s story and that of Reconstruction Louisiana offer us a valuable perspective on race, violence, politics, and citizenship which we could use today,” said Mitchell, who is a distant relative of Dunn’s.

Born into slavery and emancipated at age 10, Dunn emerged as a national political figure during the Reconstruction Era that followed the Civil War. He was elected lieutenant governor of Louisiana in 1868. He also briefly served as acting governor and was the first Black man to serve in either position in American history.

 “Monumental is not a typical history book. It falls into the category of graphic history, similar to a graphic novel, but unlike a graphic novel, ‘Monumental’ is based on real events,” Weldon said. “The scenes from Oscar Dunn’s life depicted in this book were informed by hundreds of archival sources that inform not only the narrative but the artwork too.”

The Historic New Orleans Collection will celebrate the launch of “Monumental” and two additional books during a virtual symposium March 5-7. Anyone who purchases a copy of “Monumental” will receive free admission to the symposium, “Recovered Voices: Black Activism in New Orleans from Reconstruction to the Present Day.” Mitchell, Weldon, and Edwards will be featured in a panel session Saturday, March 6, at 1 p.m.

At the height of Dunn’s political career, just before he was poised to become the first Black governor of Louisiana, he mysteriously died on Nov. 22, 1871, after a brief and sudden illness. His death was the target of speculation and political intrigue. Dunn’s symptoms were consistent with arsenic poisoning, according to Weldon. 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.

Dunn’s funeral was one of the largest in New Orleans history. In 1873, the governor of Louisiana allocated $10,000 to build a monument in Dunn’s honor, but the monument was never built, perhaps because of the nearing fall of Reconstruction.

“I created a graphic history in hopes of providing access to the narrative to a wider audience,” Mitchell said. “I am hoping that ‘Monumental’ will help secondary education teachers and professors at universities to discuss Reconstruction and Reconstruction’s black leadership in classrooms across our nation.”

While Mitchell is a professor who has produced much scholarly research, this is his first graphic history. He believes that graphic histories can be an important tool to teach students about history and hopes that ‘Monumental’ will be the first in a series of graphic histories to reach this new audience.

“I believe that graphic histories capture the attention of students who process visually,” Mitchell said. “I believe that they capture the imagination and that they inspire students, particularly students of color to see themselves in the fabric of our nation. Images are powerful and I believe that there are valuable lessons that we can learn from Reconstruction. So much of the Dunn narrative mirrors the division, distrust, and violence that is going on today. I’m hoping that the text can help open discourses around race, citizenship, and politics in our nation’s high schools and colleges.”

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