As a young Marvel Comics fan growing up in New Orleans, Brian Mitchell liked the big-name characters as much as anyone.
But for every Spider-Man or version of the X-Men, Mitchell also had a soft spot for the lesser-known heroes of the day, the Adam Warlocks or the Black Panthers of the pre-Marvel Movie Universe era.
“I think particularly those comics that didn’t have long runs but were impactful and important culturally,” Mitchell says.
As a history professor at UA Little Rock, Mitchell has unearthed a figure from the past who fits that bill, and he has told the story in the award-winning graphic novel “Monumental: Oscar Dunn and His Radical Fight in Reconstruction Louisiana,” published by The Historic New Orleans Collection.
Dunn, a distant relative to Mitchell, was born into slavery and became the first Black man in the U.S. to be elected lieutenant governor when he assumed the post in Lousiana in 1868, three years after the end of the Civil War. Collaborating with artist Barrington Edwards and editor Nick Weldon, Mitchell tells Dunn’s story in a full-color, 256-page book.
“He was one of the nation’s first Black leaders, and I virtually had heard nothing about him outside of my family,” Mitchell says. “I’d gone to grade school in Louisiana and gone to high school in Louisiana and there was no mention of him. He’d just disappeared from the landscape.”
The book details the turbulence of the Reconstruction Era, complete with riots, violence, intrigue and Dunn’s 1869 trip to Ulysses Grant’s presidential inauguration, which was an opportunity for Mitchell to cast a light on the double standard of Northern racism.
“There hadn’t been a lot of examples of American history, especially difficult chapters of American history, that were told for younger audiences,” Mitchell says.
“Monumental” has earned 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.
“We’ll always be remembered as one of these 50 books,” says Mitchell, who lives with his wife and two children in North Little Rock.
With the warm reception for “Monumental,” Mitchell is planning a series of graphic novels touching on aspects of African American history, including the Elaine Massacre, a subject he has studied in depth.
“History is the glue that binds all the other academic endeavors together,” he says.
A graduate of the University of New Orleans, Mitchell first tackled the subject of Dunn in a dissertation, and found that scholarship about Dunn was scant — a few papers amounting to no more than 20-25 pages. Mitchell had to find new sources and dig up information that hadn’t seen the light of day for 100 years.
When the dissertation was published in manuscript form, Mitchell was pleasantly surprised to hear from an eighth-grade honors student, and his father, who had read it and wanted to thank him.
“It’s unusual,” Mitchell says. “I asked him a few questions to see if he really read the book and he had. I asked at the end of our conversation how I could make it more accessible to students his age, and he suggested why not try a graphic history?”
There was, of course, a need to take artistic license in “Monumental,” but thanks to the exhausting research, Edwards was able to depict scenes and settings in New Orleans almost brick by brick. Other times there was enough written information available that Edwards could recreate moments with confidence in their accuracy.
“This is where Nick becomes very helpful,” Mitchell says, praising his editor. “He’s able to work between me, the historian and the artist and allow the artist some leeway to make the images his own while still keeping to this rigorous set of borders that I’ve created. This is what the photograph is. This is what the newspaper article says.”
Freed from slavery at age 10, Dunn became one of the foremost leaders of the time and even filled in as acting governor, another national first, though he was never elected outright. He used his political clout to integrate New Orleans’ public schools during one of the most racially charged eras in American history.
But, rather than polarize people, Dunn practiced bipartisanship and was respected by Republicans and Democrats alike. When he died, New Orleans shut down as nearly 50,000 attended the largest recorded funeral in state history.
“He embraced allies on both sides, both political parties,” Mitchell says. “And that’s a message our politicians need to hear today. They need to be crossing the aisle and building these sort of partnerships. Erecting bridges instead of allowing these chasms to exist.”
Mitchell has had an interest in history since his childhood; when classmates wanted to be firemen or athletes, he wanted to be a historian or an archaeologist. And as a historian, he believes lessons of the past, if heeded, can prevent the mistakes of today.
“If something doesn't work for us we can just outlaw it or rewrite it,” Mitchell says. “There are few better examples in Arkansas than the desire not to tell ethnic history. We can’t get around the fact that the Jim Crow era was full of violence. We can’t get around the fact that people were lynched. That there were massacres. These are cautionary tales.”
Just as Marvel has explored alternate timelines in its “What If?” series, Mitchell thinks of the road not taken when he thinks of Dunn. What would the nation look like if Dunn, who died mysteriously in 1871, had lived and furthered his political career?
Mitchell argues that the presence of a nationally recognized Black leader could have headed off the Plessy vs. Ferguson case that resulted in the Supreme Court’s “separate but equal” ruling that segregated the South.
“Many of his supporters believe he was poisoned by rivals within his own party. What if he had lived?” Mitchell says. “What if he had ascended to the governor’s role? What if he had been selected [vice president] by Grant in a second term? What if he had been able to deliver all the African American votes to the Republican Party at the time?
“He would have possibly averted the entire Jim Crow era.”