The Day a Former Slave Took Office in Louisiana
When, on July 13, 1868, Oscar J. Dunn took the office of Louisiana’s Lieutenant Governor it wasn’t only as the first black man in office. Dunn had also slipped the bonds of slavery to purchase his freedom.
The story of how Oscar Dunn rose from a boy of no consequence to a prominent figure in American politics is one few know about. It has all the underpinnings of the rags to riches tale, even though Dunn probably didn’t make much money.
Born into slavery, Dunn educated himself in the streets, served the Union Army in the U.S. Civil War, and became a first when there were few other firsts of that kind. He was also an incorruptible man, a leader amongst leaders.
Growing up Dunn
Life started for Dunn in 1826, born into slavery. His father, James, was a free man, had been since emancipated in 1819, but his mother, Maria was still a slave.
In 1832, James purchased the freedom of his wife, baby Oscar, and Oscar’s sister, Jane. This was decades before the emancipation of the slaves. James worked as a carpenter. Maria operated a boarding house, where New Orleans actors would often stay.
This mix of James’ practical skills mixed with the artistic influences of the actors in the house nested like seeds in the soil of young Oscar’s mind. The actors taught him much about the world, including how to read. Oscar’s father, James, showed him he could earn good money working hard.
Young Oscar apprenticed as a plasterer. In his youth, Oscar Dunn also picked up the ability to play and teach violin. On top of that, he joined the Freemasons, rising to the role of Master and Grandmaster by the end of the 1850s.
Segue into Politics
Dunn didn’t intend to go into politics. He was only trying to help black people find their way through the political storm that was New Orleans. To do that, Dunn opened an employment agency, aimed at Freedmen, helping them find work in the area surrounding New Orleans.
That work built a network around Dunn of labor-class blacks, for whom he became a voice. Dunn spoke out in public, a skill he picked up in his mother’s boarding home, advocating for equal rights under the 14th Amendment.
This was enough to get the attention of the Freedmen’s Savings and Trust Company of New Orleans, connected to the national company by the same name. They appointed Dunn as the secretary to their advisory committee.
Then, in 1866, Dunn organized the People’s Bakery, owned and operated by the Louisiana Association of Workingmen. While it reads like “a man opened a bakery,” understand there were rioting and bloodshed over black rights in the streets of New Orleans.
An act in 1867, the Reconstruction Act, outlined five districts in the former Confederacy. Former Confederate states would need to present an acceptable state constitution and black voter registration proof before they could rejoin the Union.
President Andrew Johnson appointed commanders to run those districts. Louisiana was part of the Texas-Louisiana district, run by General Philip H. Sheridan. He was a fan of Dunn and appointed him as to the New Orleans Board of Alderman because Dunn had his arms around the needs of that city.
As a councilman, Dunn was effective. He outlined a clear plan for education in New Orleans. It was so good, the state of Louisiana would later co-opt Dunn’s plan.
In short, children of all races from age 6-18 would attend school. At the time, there was no school program more progressive than Dunn’s. He also outlined plans for an efficient fire-fighting system, created the organizational chart for the city, and a standard operating procedure for the city council.
By 1968, the people regarded Dunn well enough for him to run on the gubernatorial ticket. If elected, he would be the Lieutenant Governor to Henry C. Warmoth, an Illinois carpetbagger. Dunn befriended Warmoth because he believed in him, believed in his support of freedmen.
Warmoth befriended Dunn because he would sway the black vote. Louisiana had just empowered their freed blacks as voters and removed the vote from the former Confederates.
It worked. Warmoth and Dunn won.
Dunn would later learn that Warmoth wasn’t the supporter of the freedmen that he understood him to be. In fact, Warmoth created a mess, dividing the Republicans, appointing Democrats in positions of power.
Through it all, Dunn kept his head above water. Even his opposition would later remark how the man would not bend to corruption, despite the common practice of that time.
Dunn set about to remove Warmoth from the office but failed to see it happen before he passed away in 1871.
In December of 1872, Louisiana impeached Warmoth. The new governor was a man named Pinckney Benton Stewart Pinchback, the first black governor of Louisiana.
It was Dunn who paved the way for Pinchback, and for blacks in Louisiana, but also for the people of the United States. He led us all.