Oscar James Dunn was the first Black lieutenant governor not just in Louisiana but the whole of America.
In his early years, Dunn led a civic force to promote education and youth initiatives for emancipated Blacks whilst challenging white politicians over civil rights.
After the Civil War and Reconstruction, Dunn made sure that freedmen seeking work on farms were not cheated and actually paid for their work.
He reportedly opened an office to cater to their needs and used his education to write contracts for recently released enslaved people so they could work on plantations without being cheated.
Encouraged to run for public office because of his contributions to the growth of black people, Dunn became a member of what was then known as the Radical Republican party.
The Radical Republican Party, as explained by Nick Weldon who works for the Historic New Orleans Collection was “the progressive party that was trying to extend civil rights to African Americans, especially in the South.”
Dunn ran for office and was elected lieutenant governor of Louisiana in 1868.
He was born in New Orleans around 1822 to an enslaved mother, Maria, who fell in love with a free man of color named James. James later purchased the freedom of his wife and their two children for $800 in 1831.
By the time Dunn turned 11, he was free and could go to school. He learned a trade (plastering) and he was excellent at it.
Dunn grew up to become the head of the black Masonic Lodges in Louisiana, according to Brian Mitchell, his descendant and a college history professor who has spent much of his career studying Dunn.
Nick Weldon, who works for the Historic New Orleans Collection, found some historic documents that had Dunn’s history, including quotes from the New Orleans Times.
In some of the quotes, local Democrats described Dunn, their political opponent, as “the taint of honesty and of scrupulous regard for the official properties,” which was a “serious drawback in innervating a reproach on the lieutenant governor.”
“Basically, they’re like, he is so fair-minded and scrupulous that it’s annoying,” Weldon explained.
“He became a big proponent for universal male suffrage” as well as civil rights legislation and the integration of public schools, according to Weldon.
“He did a lot against a lot of pressure, and in a pretty hostile environment.”
Dunn’s carrier was cut short following his sudden demise which shocked the city. As reported by Splitter News, there were rumors that the president of the United States, Ulysses S. Grant, was considering Dunn as his vice president following his visit to the capitol.
Reportedly, Dunn went to a public dinner in November of 1871 and two days later, he died.
The official cause of death, according to Weldon, was congestion of the brain and lungs which technically, is classified as natural causes.
While four out of the seven doctors who examined the lieutenant governor refused to sign off on the official cause of death, the actual cause of his death remains something of a historical mystery as some think he was poisoned by political rivals and his family also refused an autopsy.
Dunn died at the age of 49. “Over 50,000 people turned out for the funeral. It’s called the largest in New Orleans’ history. The composition of the crowd was made up of every facet of New Orleans society, black, and white. And I always point out that it’s probably one of the oldest second lines in New Orleans history. There are jazz bands that are there,” Mitchell said.
It is said that an amount of $10,000 was dedicated to creating a monument of Dunn in an act signed by the governor but Weldon said it was never made and no one knows why to date.