Oscar James Dunn was born into slavery in New Orleans in 1826. His father, James Dunn, had been emancipated in 1819 and later purchased the freedom of his wife, Maria, and their two children, Oscar and Jane, in 1832. James Dunn was a carpenter and Maria Dunn ran a boarding house for actors in New Orleans. Oscar apprenticed as a plasterer. He also became a respected violinist and taught private lessons. Working with new freedmen gave Oscar Dunn an opportunity to be an advocate for the education for all African-American children and equal protection laws under the 14th amendment.
In 1863, Dunn became a member of the Louisiana Republican Party and was elected to its central committee along with two other Black men—the first ever to do so. Two years later, he worked with the Universal Suffrage Association where his job was to register all eligible Blacks in Louisiana to vote. When the Freedmen’s Bureau took effect, Dunn was made one of the investigating agents to protect the rights of free people of color. The dedication to his people earned him the title of Secretary of the Advisory Committee for the Freedmen’s Saving and Trust Company of New Orleans. In 1867, he was appointed to the New Orleans Board of Aldermen.
The enactment of Reconstruction Acts called for the registration of Blacks voters. At mass meetings in New Orleans, Dunn emerged as one of a handful of powerful radical voices demanding Black legal equality and suffrage in Louisiana’s new state government. In 1868, Dunn became one of only seven Black men in Louisiana’s Senate, and the only former enslaved person elected to that body. During the Civil War, Dunn fought in the Union Army for the First Louisiana Native Guard, rising from Private to Captain. The Native Guards were one of the first all-black regiments to fight for the Union.
On Jan. 4, 1868 the state Republican Party met to nominate candidates for the April statewide elections. Dunn accepted the nomination to run for lieutenant governor on a ticket led by gubernatorial candidate, Henry Warmoth. Warmoth and Dunn won as a result of the newly enfranchised black voting bloc. Dunn later led a radical faction of Lincoln Republicans who attempted to have Warmoth impeached for corruption.
As Lieutenant Governor, Dunn inspired and influenced his community. His political influence grew with his leadership as lieutenant governor and pro tempo. Dunn was not only honored for his duties as lieutenant governor, but also as president of the Metropolitan Police. His popularity also made him some political enemies.
Before his first term in office ended, Dunn died on November 22, 1871. He was just 45 years old. His sudden death raised suspicions that he was poisoned. This was never proven, but all doctors who examined Dunn named the cause of death as congestion of the brain. His funeral was held at St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church on North Roman Street. The 12-block-long funeral procession was reportedly witnessed by approximately 50,000 people along Canal Street. Oscar James Dunn is best remembered as Louisiana’s first Black lieutenant governor, serving from 1868 to 1871. His honesty and unique perception of government earned him respect as a politician and an exceptional human being admired centuries after his departure. (Courtesy of Tribune | Video Credit: WWLTV)