NEW ORLEANS (press release) – The Sons and Daughters of the United States Middle Passage (SDUSMP) selected “Monumental: Oscar Dunn and His Radical Fight in Reconstruction Louisiana” as a recipient of its 2021 Phillis Wheatley Book Award. The announcement was made Friday, May 21, at the annual SDUSMP meeting, which was held virtually.
Established in 2011, SDUSMP is a nonprofit lineage society dedicated to preserving the memory of its members’ freed and enslaved ancestors. Its Phillis Wheatley Book Award recognizes works published within the past five years covering the topic of American slavery. The prize’s namesake was a Gambia native captured by slave traders as a child and sold to a family in Boston in 1761. She became the first African American to author a book, a 1773 collection of poems.
“Monumental” was honored in the category nonfiction graphic novel.
The vibrantly illustrated work, by Brian K. Mitchell, Barrington S. Edwards and Nick Weldon and published this year by The Historic New Orleans Collection, is the first book to explore the life of Oscar J. Dunn (1826–1871). Born into slavery in New Orleans, Dunn was emancipated as a boy and eventually became America’s first Black lieutenant governor and acting governor (of Louisiana).
A champion of universal suffrage, civil rights and integrated public schools, Dunn fought for radical change during the early years of Reconstruction in Louisiana, the post–Civil War era rife with corruption and violence. Allies and rivals praised Dunn for his integrity and political talent. Dunn died under mysterious circumstances in 1871, but New Orleans honored him with one of the largest funeral processions in its history.
Mitchell, a descendant of Dunn and an associate professor of history at the University of Arkansas, Little Rock, first learned of his pioneering ancestor as a child from his great-grandmother. Disappointed that others—particularly his second-grade teacher in New Orleans—were not familiar with Dunn and denied his accomplishments were even possible, Mitchell committed himself to corroborating the family story. His research led to newly discovered primary sources and dispelled long-held narratives about P. B. S. Pinchback, who had been regarded as the first Black governor of Louisiana.
Using archival material from THNOC’s holdings, illustrator Barrington S. Mitchell resurrects in vivid detail Louisiana and New Orleans after the Civil War—while presenting an iconic American life—on the pages of “Monumental.” Contextual essays, a map, timeline and endnotes add layers of depth to the narrative.
“I am overjoyed that the Sons and Daughters of the United States Middle Passage have selected ‘Monumental’ for the Phillis Wheatley Book Award,” Mitchell said. “I share this fantastic accolade with the book’s illustrator, Barrington, and editor, Nick. I would also like to thank the staff of The Historic New Orleans Collection’s Publications Department, particularly designer Tana Coman. Without their herculean efforts, ‘Monumental’ would not be possible.”
Retailing for $19.95, the full-color paperback work is available at independent and commercial bookstores and online retailers.
Read about “Monumental” and this year’s other winners, which include Isabel Wilkerson’s best-selling Oprah’s Book Club selection “Caste,” at the Wheatley Awards website.