64 Parishes

Oscar Dunn

Oscar James Dunn became one of the first Black men in the United States to serve in an executive political position when he was elected lieutenant governor of Louisiana in 1868.

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Oscar Dunn

The Historic New Orleans Collection

A lithograph portrait of Oscar Dunn, ca. 1868 and 1872.

Oscar James Dunn became one of the first Black men to serve in an executive political position in the United States when he was elected lieutenant governor of Louisiana in 1868. It was at this time—a short period during Reconstruction—that many African Americans rose to power in the state’s highest offices. In an era when Dunn’s race alone would have drawn disrespect, even his political opponents reported that he was incorruptible and a man of integrity. No political scandals were ever brought against him, which was rare for a politician in the chaotic post-Civil War environment of the defeated Confederacy. His early death at age forty-nine perhaps prevented him from becoming a US senator or potential vice-presidential candidate.

What was Dunn’s early life and career like?

Dunn was born in 1822. His stepfather James had been emancipated in 1819 by James H. Caldwell, founder of the St. Charles Theatre and the New Orleans Gas Light Company. In 1832 James purchased the freedom of his wife Maria and their children Oscar and Jane. James was a carpenter and Maria operated a boarding house for actors in New Orleans. Oscar apprenticed as a plasterer. He also became a respected guitarist and taught private lessons.

How did Dunn get involved in politics? 

During the Civil War, Dunn did not serve in an active capacity. Near the end of the four-year conflict, he opened an employment agency where freedmen described as “good servants and field hands” were hired out to residents of New Orleans and surrounding parishes. Working in collaboration with newly freed African Americans, Dunn championed their struggle for freedom and became a strong advocate of Black land ownership, education for all Black children, and equal protection laws under the Fourteenth Amendment. He became secretary of the advisory committee of the Freedmen’s Saving and Trust Company of New Orleans, a branch of the national agency, and was on the board of the Louisiana Association for the Benefit of Colored Orphans. In 1866 he helped organize the People’s Bakery, a cooperative enterprise intended to promote economic independence among freedmen.

Dunn’s sympathy and desire to aid the cause of freedom and universal suffrage would be a stepping stone into politics and elective office. Reconstruction-era politics were brutal and often resulted in violent outbreaks across the South as freedmen, carpetbaggers, and Radical Republicans began to take power from the white supremacist establishment that had ruled the antebellum South. After violent riots and massacres of Black people in Memphis and New Orleans in 1866, tensions between President Andrew Johnson and Congress came to a head, and the forces in Congress who blamed the South for the Civil War won a majority. The passage of the Reconstruction Acts in 1867 called for five military districts with commanders, the registration of Black men as voters, and a new state constitution—with federal approval—before states could be readmitted to the Union. Louisiana and Texas comprised the Fifth District, with General Philip H. Sheridan as commander. In August of 1867, Sheridan appointed Dunn to the New Orleans City Council. Dunn exhibited a “clear vision of the city’s civic needs,” observed biographer A. E. Perkins. It was Dunn’s skill as a councilman that brought about public education for the city and later for the state. During the Louisiana Constitutional Convention of 1867–68, a law was passed opening all schools to people of all races. Other issues Dunn took on included the establishment of an efficient firefighting system, reconfiguration of the chain of command at city hall to place it under the general supervision of the mayor, and the creation of city council operating rules.

How did Dunn become lieutenant governor of Louisiana, and what were some of his accomplishments?

After Congress approved Louisiana’s new constitution, elections for state offices were conducted. In 1868 Dunn became the candidate for lieutenant governor when the wealthy and highly educated Francis E. Dumas—the highest-ranking non-white officer in the Union army and a former slave-owning proprietor of a sugar plantation—refused the nomination.

Dunn was drafted and ran on a ticket with Henry C. Warmoth, a carpetbagger from Illinois whom Dunn had befriended. Warmoth and Dunn won the election based on the newly enfranchised Black voting bloc and the exclusion of former Confederates from the polls. As the new state legislature took its oath on June 29, Dunn led a movement to require an additional oath for new legislators. He wanted state senators to take a strict “test oath” to declare that they had not fought against the United States or aided those who did, and a Black colleague in the House requested the same oath of its members. To avoid a confrontation, a letter from President Ulysses S. Grant resolved the matter by requiring only the oath in the Louisiana Constitution be used in the swearing-in of the legislature. Dunn served as lieutenant governor and was also president of the New Orleans Metropolitan Police, an integrated militia that protected the Radical Republican administration under Governor William Pitt Kellogg.

Why did Dunn and Warmoth have a falling out?

Shortly after the election, Dunn realized that Warmoth was not the friend of freedmen and Louisiana that he had thought. Warmoth’s personal ambitions created divisions within the Republican Party. The conflict between the governor and the lieutenant governor grew and when Warmoth was unable to maintain control, leadership fell to Dunn. Dunn stepped in and performed so well that even his bitter opponents in the Democratic press complimented his skills.

When Dunn became the Republican State Convention’s chairman, some historians claim that he was on track to become governor of Louisiana in the 1872 election. From that post, many believe he would have been elected to the US Senate and then eventually would have become a potential choice for vice president.

Why are the circumstances of Dunn’s death suspicious?

At this critical point in Reconstruction, on November 20, 1871, Dunn became violently ill. Within two days, he was dead. Speculation and unanswered questions surrounded his sudden death. Some researchers say it was caused by foul play, with poisoning most assumed to be the cause. Four doctors were called at various points during his mysterious illness; all four physicians pronounced Dunn’s cause of death as “congestion of the brain.” One doctor added a statement that said his death was due to excessive vomiting.

His funeral was held at St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church on North Roman Street in New Orleans. Mississippi Secretary of State Reverend James Lynch delivered the eulogy. The twelve-block-long funeral procession was reportedly witnessed by approximately fifty thousand people along Canal Street. The Louisiana State House, public schools, city hall, and all federal buildings were closed as a sign of respect. Dunn was buried at St. Louis Cemetery No. 2 in New Orleans.