MLK 50: Oscar Dunn, from runaway slave to the first black lieutenant governor

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NEW ORLEANS -- On the grounds of St. Louis Cemetery No. 3 rests a pioneer.

Oscar James Dunn was born in 1826.

He was a runaway slave who belonged to a paint contractor, a "very intelligent" man, music teacher and violinist.

But he would become so much more.

In 1868, he ascended to become the first black lieutenant governor in the history of the United States.

Dunn's story is one of one of several that WGNO-News with a Twist is telling as part of MLK 50, the yearlong commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination.

 

He got his start in politics after he was appointed to the New Orleans Board of Aldermen.

He knew Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner and Ulysses S. Grant. He traveled back and forth from New Orleans often.

Dunn fought in the Union Army during the Civil War, and as lieutenant governor, he would bring that tenacity to change the condition of his fellow freedmen. He often butted heads with P.B.S. Pinchback, the first black governor of Louisiana, on social issues and how to fix them.

"Dunn was about equal rights for blacks," said historian Claudette Smith-Brown, but she added that he wasn't necessarily in support of interracial socializing.

 

And as quickly as he ascended to the lieutenant governor's office, his life ended. He died mysteriously in 1871, with many believing it was foul play by way of poisoning.

Although the menace of Jim Crow erased much of the Reconstruction progress that Dunn and other black political leaders made in Louisiana, Dunn's work in education and public accommodation for black residents laid a foundation for the future.

"I think the Dunn legacy, maybe his life story, and it's a story that all blacks, especially elected officials, need to read about," said Smith-Brown.