Anytime someone can lay claim to being the first Black person to hold a position of note, their legacy should be remembered and celebrated, for what they often had to endure to get to that point. However, this isn’t always how things play out, as the mechanisms of history sometimes keep these moments and accomplishments under wraps. We share one such case, of Oscar James Dunn, the first Black Lieutenant Governor in this country.
The movement first came from Dunn’s descendant Brian Mitchell. He said in an interview with Splinter News that he had no idea of the importance of his great great great-uncle. He never heard about this in school, but it was family memories that kept things alive. “…As I child, I’d spend my days after school with my great-grandmother,” he told the news site. Her stories “always sort of lead to important patriarchs or matriarchs,” including Dunn. Mitchell is now a college history professor and has spent much of his career studying Dunn.
Dunn’s political career started as an activist, challenging white politicians over civil rights, and driving a strong civic force to promote education and youth initiatives for emancipated Blacks. Those close to him encouraged Dunn to run, and he was elected lieutenant governor of Louisiana in 1868, as a member of what was then known as the Radical Republican party.
“They were the progressive party that was trying to extend civil rights to Black Americans, especially in the South,” Nick Weldon, who works for the Historic New Orleans Collection, told Splinter News. Dunn served along Henry Warmoth, a member of his party who he thought shared his views. However, things fell apart when Warmoth refused to sign legislation that would help Blacks. Dunn’s public favor started to grow, but he would never have the chance to use it, as he fell mysteriously ill after a dinner party and died two days later. $10,000 was initially dedicated to a monument honoring him after his death, but it never came to pass. Weldon doesn’t understand why.
“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,” he said. In a time where there is a lot of discussion about statues and legacy, taking the time to honor Dunn may have made all the difference in more people knowing about who he is and what he accomplished.