It was the bicentennial year, University of New Orleans alumnus Brian Mitchell recalled, and his elementary school teacher was telling the class about historical leaders in Louisiana. He waited, expecting to hear the name Oscar Dunn, the first Black lieutenant governor of Louisiana.
“Even though we were learning about governors at the time, there was no mention,” said Mitchell, who grew up in New Orleans and is currently an associate professor of history at the University of Arkansas Little Rock and an associate faculty member at the Anderson Institute on Race and Ethnicity at UALR.
When he didn’t hear Dunn’s name, Mitchell injected into the conversation the stories he’d learned at home from his great-grandmother about Dunn, a distant cousin of his great-grandfather.
“They didn’t believe me,” Mitchell said of his teacher and classmates. “And it didn’t get better as time went on. As I got into middle school and high school, there wasn’t any emphasis put on the accomplishments that were made by African Americans.”
“We heard that Black people were slaves. We heard that Abraham Lincoln came and there was a Civil War and Black people weren’t slaves anymore and then the modern Civil Rights Movement … what were Black people doing in between these two times? What sort of progress?
“It wasn’t until I got to college that I had people who were capable of explaining that,” said Mitchell, who earned a bachelor’s, two master’s and a doctoral degree from the University of New Orleans.
There was an informational void, Mitchell said, that wasn’t filled until he enrolled at UNO and met history professor Raphael Cassimere, among others.
“He was actually the first African American male teacher I ever had,” Mitchell said. “He was particularly influential when we talk about me becoming a specialist in African American history. He spoke with a passion and he was able to fill in so many holes in what I’d been taught. He made it all make sense.”
Mitchell’s recent book, “Monumental: Oscar Dunn and His Radical Fight in Reconstruction Louisiana,” is an outgrowth of his doctoral dissertation and the historical void he found as a younger student. He decided to create a graphic novel in an effort to reach younger readers, Mitchell said.
“I’ve chosen to share Oscar Dunn’s story as a graphic history to make sure that people, especially younger readers, won’t forget,” Mitchell wrote in the book’s introduction. “Decades after my own teacher denied the story of this critical person in not only my family’s history, but America’s, I still feel the sting.”
The book, published in 2021 by The Historic New Orleans Collection, has earned several awards, including the Phillis Wheatley Book Award from the Sons and Daughters of the United States Middle Passage, which recognizes recent books covering the topic of slavery. It was also Louisiana's choice for the 2021 Library of Congress National Book Festival’s Great Reads from Great Places.
The 200-plus page novel chronicles the life of Oscar James Dunn, who rose to prominence in New Orleans as he led the fight for fairer treatment and wages for recently freed African American men and soldiers in the aftermath of the Civil War. In 1868, he was elected lieutenant governor of Louisiana as part of the Republican ticket. He was an early champion of what was seen at the time as “radical” causes, such as universal male suffrage, civil rights and integrated public schools during the early years of Reconstruction in Louisiana.
In 1871, amid in-party political strife, Dunn died under what some have described as mysterious circumstances following a brief illness.
Mitchell earned four degrees from UNO: a bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history, a master’s degree in urban studies, and a doctorate in urban studies with a concentration in history.
Those degrees helped steer him into a career he’s always wanted, Mitchell said.
“I’m doing exactly what I’d hope to do,” Mitchell said. “I always wanted to be a historian and that’s exactly what I do. My work has been covered internationally. Whenever I can, I try to plug the people who were part and parcel in that making, you know Dr. Cassimere, Dr. (Arnold) Hirsch … they were all really important in my development.”
Mitchell’s historical research into the 1919 Elaine Massacre of Black sharecroppers in Arkansas resulted in the awarding of a Purple Heart medal in 2019 to one of the victims, Pvt. Leroy Johnston, a World World I veteran who had only recently returned home.
“We came across his service records and his service records indicated that his wounds sustained in battle had been changed from severely to slightly, which would have negated him receiving any of the awards that were given for valor on the battle field,” Mitchell said. “I began a campaign petitioning the Secretary of Defense, with the help of our member of the U.S. House of Representative French Hill and was able to get those awards to the family posthumously.”
Mitchell also worked with Hill on federal legislation that re-opened all of the service records for minority soldiers serving in World War I. His historical research and efforts earned him an invitation to the White House and President Donald Trump’s 2020 State of the Union address.
“Remember the Nancy Pelosi rip?” Mitchell asked, referencing when Pelosi, a Democrat and Speaker of the House, tore in half a copy of Trump’s speech during the televised address. “I was there; I saw it all!”
Mitchell describes himself as an inquisitive child growing up, always asking questions and wanting to know “why?” Hours spent in museums and libraries fueled and fed that curiosity.
“I always wanted to be a historian as far back as I can remember,” Mitchell said. “Our big pasttime was the library or museum; those were free! In doing that, I just developed a passion for the past.”
As a college professor, Mitchell said he tries to instill the importance of an inclusive history and one that is connected to the future.
“I purposely am extremely plural in educating my students in regards to diversity,” Mitchell said. “I always tell them that the United States is made up of people that came from all over the world and that nobody came and brought nothing; everybody brought something to the table.”
Mitchell said he makes his courses as relevant to his students as possible, emphasizing that we are connected to the past and that our past influences decisions that we make all the time.
“This is one of the things that most of my students walk away with: history is likely the most important class that they will take because it makes everything else make sense,” Mitchell said. “It puts everything else in a chronology, it shows how everything is connected. It shows how we came up with thoughts; it shows how we evolved those thoughts.
So, history is essential to understanding who we are and where we’re going. And, as John Hope Franklin said, ‘We use it as a barometer to measure the progress that we’re making.’”