On March 13, 1872, the National Republican reflected upon the importance of the nation’s first Black executive officer, Lieutenant. Governor Oscar James Dunn, some four months after his untimely death writing, “He was to them [Black Americans], their great preservative, their leader, the embodiment of their hopes, the real Moses…. who, as they fainted and famished in the struggle to reach the goal of acknowledged manhood, smote the rock of adversity till it gushed forth the cheering waters of hope. It was Oscar J. Dunn who led his people from the land of oppression and bondage…”
Oscar was born enslaved in 1822, the property of George P. Bowers, a commission merchant who resided in the Vieux Carre. On February 5, 1831, Oscar was purchased by his stepfather James Dunn, a free black stage carpenter who had migrated to New Orleans from Petersburg, Virginia.
James paid $800 to purchase his wife, Maria, and his two-year-old daughter, Jane. On December 13, 1832, he emancipated his family before the city’s Police Jury, officially making them free people of color. After his emancipation, Oscar adopted both his stepfather’s first and last names, becoming Oscar James Dunn.
Now free, Oscar could attend school, a privilege denied to the state’s enslaved population. Despite his academic excellence, at fourteen he was withdrawn and apprenticed to a master
After an argument with his employer, Dunn deserted his employment, inducing the plasterer to post advertisements calling for his apprehension and return in local papers. After the war, Dunn opened an information office where he wrote and negotiated labor contracts for freedmen. A leader among the Prince Hall Freemasons and within the African Methodist Episcopal church, Dunn joined the executive committee of the “Friends of Universal Suffrage,” which advocated for civil and voting rights for people of color in Louisiana.
Dunn was among the first black men appointed to political office within Louisiana’s Reconstruction government. In 1867, he was appointed to the Assistant Board of Aldermen and installed as the Assistant Recorder of the city’s Second District Court, becoming the first Black person to serve in a judicial capacity in the state.
The following year, he became the nation’s first Black executive officer when he was elected Lieutenant Governor of Louisiana.
In office, Dunn opposed the de-facto re-enslavement of black children through agricultural apprenticeships, and also helped to form “The Bakery for the People,” a collective designed to foster economic independence.
A fierce defender of civil rights, Dunn argued that the Black citizens merely required “an equal chance in the race of life; an equal opportunity of supporting our families, of educating our children and of becoming worthy citizens of this Government.” Following the passage of a bill to integrate public schools, Dunn and his wife, Ellen Boyd Dunn, enrolled their daughters and a niece in New Orleans public schools.
On September 26, 1868, Governor Henry C. Warmoth vetoed the Civil Rights Act of 1866, creating a schism within Louisiana’s Republican party. Dunn helped lead the faction which sought to remove Warmoth. By 1871, they had mustered enough support to impeach the governor. Before Warmoth’s trial, Dunn became violently ill and quickly died, leading many to speculate that he had been poisoned. The day of Dunn‘s funeral, November 23, 1871, was declared a day of mourning, and all the offices of city government were closed. Benevolent societies, military and police units, and other organizations formed the largest recorded funeral procession in the city’s history.
The legislature established the Oscar J. Dunn Monument Association of Louisiana for the purpose of erecting a fitting monument in honor of the late lieutenant-governor. Though monies were dedicated, the proposed monument was never erected.