The Rise and Fall of America's First Black Governor

Was Oscar Dunn Poisoned to Get Him Out of the Way?

William Spivey
Momentum
Published in
3 min readNov 16, 2023

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By Mathew Benjamin Brady — U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17084187

I was researching another story when I ran across a reference to Virginia's Douglas Wilder as "America's first Black governor since Reconstruction." I instantly wondered who was a Black governor during Reconstruction, as there certainly weren't any before that period. I knew Mississippi, Louisiana, and Florida had elected statewide officials. I didn't know Louisiana had two Black men elevated to governor while serving as lieutenant governor for brief periods after the governor became ill. Oscar James Dunn was the first Black man to serve as governor for 39 days in 1871.

As you can imagine, white residents of Louisiana and elsewhere were none too happy about the election of Black people to elected positions—some of the places they got elected to weren't excited either. In 1868, John Willis Menard was the first Black man elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in a special election to fill the seat of a man who died. His white opponent challenged his election, and the House chose to leave the seat empty rather than fill it with a Black man for the 45 days remaining in the term.

Oscar Dunn was elected lieutenant governor in 1868. When the governor left the state to seek care for his injured foot, Dunn became acting governor, the first Black man to hold that position in America.

Dunn was a productive politician, passing a resolution that led to public education for all children in Louisiana, Black and white. He also compiled several political foes, white and Black, including the man who replaced him as lieutenant governor, P.B.S. Pinchback, who some accused of slandering Dunn, and others suspect was involved in his sudden death.

On the evening of November 19, 1871, Oscar Dunn became violently ill and, within three days, died. He was seen by seven doctors during that period, four of whom signed his death certificate, noting "congestion of the brain and lungs" as the cause. The names of the…

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William Spivey
Momentum

I write about politics, history, education, and race. Follow me at williamfspivey.com and support me at https://ko-fi.com/williamfspivey0680