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Oscar J. Dunn, America's First Black Lieutenant Governor

Each week, historian Sean Michael Chick will highlight some of the country's unsung heroes during the Civil War era who could serve as positive replacements following the takedown of New Orleans' Confederate monuments. This week, learn about the country's first black Lieutenant Governor, Oscar J. Dunn. 


Though his date of birth is still disputed to this day, all agree that Oscar J. Dunn was born a slave in New Orleans in 1826. His father, James, hailed from Petersburg, Virginia, and was a slave owned by James H. Caldwell, famed as the founder of the St. Charles Theatre and New Orleans Gas Light Company. James was freed in 1819, but Oscar’s mother, Maria, was a slave and that made Oscar one as well. In 1832, James bought their freedom.

The Dunn family, although freedmen, were not part of the larger Catholic Creole culture of New Orleans. They also maintained close ties to Caldwell; James did work for him and Maria ran a boarding house for travelling actors and actresses. Oscar was trained in plastering and painting. He was a successful craftsman and by the 1850s was a member of the local Freemasons.

In 1865 Dunn, until then a background political player, gave a fiery speech that drew upon America’s founding principles. He declared “It is the boast and the glory of the American Republic that there is no discrimination among men, no privileges founded upon birthright. There are no hereditary distinctions; nobility is unknown ... this country being a republic and not a monarchy.” As a self-made man, Dunn actively used that rhetoric to his advantage. Dunn became a vocal spokesman for equality, arguing for full suffrage, worker’s rights, expansive land rights, and education reform. He was the most broadly popular black politician in New Orleans.

Dunn’s greatest achievement was Louisiana’s 1868 Constitution, which was among the most progressive in the nation. Dunn made integrated schools a focal point of the constitution. He also promoted Straight University, one of the nation’s first black colleges. Yet, Dunn’s radicalism had its limits. On the subject of schools he said “the colored people did not desire social equality, but merely the privilege of educating their children, so that they might become worthy citizens of the government.” Such balanced rhetoric, and Dunn’s reputation for fair-dealing, earned him even admirers among the white Democrats.

Dunn struggled to bridge the gap between the Afro-Americans, who tended to be Protestant English speakers and generally poorer, with the Afro-Creoles, who were Catholic and in some noted cases had acquired large fortunes. In 1868 Dunn ran for lieutenant governor and was paired with Henry Clay Warmoth, a Union veteran. Afro-Creole Radicals, led by Louis C. Roudanez, refused to back the Dunn ticket because they were insulted that the Republicans had snubbed their own candidate, Francis Dumas. Dunn won, making him the country’s first black Lieutenant Governor, but the rift remained.

Warmoth and Dunn had a falling out. Warmoth proved to be corrupt and too willing to backpedal on civil rights. Warmoth gradually shifted rightward, first to the Afro-Creoles and eventually to the Democrats. The Republican Party in Louisiana was increasingly divided by faction. Dunn managed to woo some of the Afro-Creoles to his side as a plot was hatched to impeach Warmoth. Barring that, Dunn was being considered as running mate to Ulysses S. Grant, then seeking a second term as president.

In the midst of these severe political battles, Dunn took the first radical step towards integrated schools. On January 11, 1871, Fanny and Emma Dunn, his adopted daughters, entered the Madison Girls’ School on the corner of Palmyra and Prieur Streets. They, and eighteen other students, became the focal point of the first attempts at school integration in New Orleans. The Times-Picayune declared, “The outrageous work has been inaugurated. They are the first pupils known to be colored.”

On November 22, 1871 Dunn died suddenly while campaigning in rural Louisiana. Rumors of poisoning ran rife, mostly concerning Warmoth and his allies. Dunn did show signs of arsenic poisoning, but nothing was ever proven. His funeral was among the biggest in New Orleans history. He was laid to rest in the Ladies Olive Branch Benevolent Association Tomb in St. Louis Cemetery Number 2. His death is often considered a major blow to Reconstruction in Louisiana, and arguably in the nation as a whole. Dunn was seemingly on the verge of greatness in 1871. No other black politician in America was as respected and popular.

Dunn was a man of impeccable character noted for his honesty in an age when corruption was common among politicians of every party, color, and creed. He also had a dignity that was sorely lacking in Reconstruction New Orleans. Once in 1868, while meeting with the state senate, a white mob marched in. Dunn calmly asked the mob to leave. They did, and Dunn in turn had the senate rise as the mob left. Dunn said “Silence fell on that Senate Chamber; the negro taught white men what was true courtesy and good breeding. The inferior race was on the higher plane. The negro was the true gentleman.” Today New Orleans honors Dunn with … nothing. A monument was planned back in 1872, but the failure of Reconstruction prevented it from being erected.


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