Restoring the Tomb of NOLA’s First Black Councilman

Louisiana News

NEW ORLEANS (WGNO) —Many of New Orleans’ historic residents rest in stone within the gates of St. Louis Cemetery Two. Towards the middle of the grounds lies the tomb of Oscar James Dunn.

Heather Veneziano is the Director of Public Engagement and Development for New Orleans Catholic Cemeteries and says, “Dunn was interred within the tomb in 1871. Since that time, it’s started to deteriorate, so we are launching a campaign to place it under perpetual care.”

The perpetual care program was started in the 1940s, as a way to offer families peace of mind, in knowing the tombs of loved ones would be maintained. Today, every new internment has perpetual care included. However, tombs dating back earlier than 1940, are often unfunded and in danger of deteriorating.

To save Dunn’s tomb from a crumbling fate, New Orleans Catholic Cemeteries is raising money to place it in perpetual care.

Veneziano says, “New Orleans Catholic Cemeteries is fronting the cost of the repairs on his tomb, so all of the donations received from the public, will be strictly for the perpetual care. We are donating the labor to get it up to speed to enter the program and then it will be maintained forever.”

Oscar Dunn was the first African American city council member of New Orleans in 1867. There wouldn’t be another African American councilman until A.L. Davis would be elected in 1968.

After becoming councilman, Dunn would become the first black Lieutenant Governor in the country, in 1868. His time in office was not to last.

Amanda Fallis is an archivist for the city of New Orleans at the city public library and says, “we do know that he did die of mysterious circumstances in the middle of his tenure as lieutenant governor.”

The biggest issue of the day was Reconstruction. Dunn was a former slave and would use his position to distribute equality for his fellow freedmen. Some of his work included integration for public accommodations and better education for blacks.

“I think his biggest legacy is obviously the work he was able to do in the office in such a short time under the circumstances that allowed him to. It was revolutionary. America had not allowed an African American into that level of position in its history. That’s monumental,” says Amanda Fallis.

The New Orleans Public Library and the City Archives are hosting a free zoom event, July 29th at 6:00pm, titled “Rediscovering Oscar James Dunn.” The event will feature Dr. Brian K. Mitchell, a professor at the University of Arkansas, a Descendant of Oscar Dunn, and author of the book, Monumental: Oscar Dunn and His Radical Fight in Reconstruction Louisiana.

The event is free and open to the public and will showcase Dunn’s legacy, the need to save his tomb and cover the mysterious happenings around Oscar James Dunn’s death. To attend the virtual event, click here or here.

To help New Orleans Catholic Cemeteries in their mission of conservation, click here to donate.

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