New Orleans Historical Figures Series
OSCAR DUNN, 1822-1871
First Black Lieutenant Governor of a US state (Louisiana).
“We simply ask to be allowed an equal chance in the race of life. An equal opportunity of supporting our families, of educating our children, and of becoming worthy citizens of this government.”
It was only during the societal tumult surrounding the American Civil War that a man born enslaved in New Orleans could have risen to become America’s first Black acting governor.
Oscar Dunn was born in 1822, his freedom eventually purchased by his stepfather. He apprenticed as a plasterer, was a respected guitarist, and fought tirelessly after the war to achieve equality for millions of liberated African Americans. It is a cause he championed throughout his political career.
After serving on New Orleans’s city council, Dunn was elected in 1868 to be Louisiana’s and the country's first Black lieutenant governor, a term which included 39 days as acting governor when his political partner-turned-rival Gov. Henry Warmoth was injured. Dunn’s name was floated for offices as high as vice president, but his life ended suddenly before those plans could be realized. Some believe Dunn was poisoned due to his politics, but whatever the cause, as many as 20,000 people lined the streets for a funeral procession celebrating the man W. E. B. Du Bois called, “an unselfish, incorruptible leader.”
LAFCADIO HEARN, 1850-1904
Greek-Irish-Japanese writer, translator, and teacher who introduced the culture and literature of Japan to new audiences in Europe and North America
“Times are not good here. The city is crumbling into ashes. It has been buried under taxes and frauds and maladministrations so that it has become a study for archaeologists...but it is better to live here in sackcloth and ashes than to own the whole state of Ohio.”
Lafcadio Hearn traveled the globe and wrote about all he saw. He is best known for his writings about Japan. While he lived in Japan for many years, and even raised a family there, it was Hearn’s decade in New Orleans that some believe was his most formative.
The writer and translator was born in Greece in 1850, abandoned by his parents in Dublin at seven years old, and eventually sent to Cincinnati where he lived in poverty for years before finding work as a journalist. He took his talents to New Orleans, where he investigated political corruption, public health failures, and violence, but his most enduring writing on the city came in national publications like Harper’s Weekly. There he exposed readers from the rest of the country to the uniqueness of Creole culture, shaping New Orleans’s lasting reputation as one of the most Caribbean and European cities in the United States.
MAHALIA JACKSON, 1828-1971
American gospel singer widely considered one of the most influential vocalists of the 20th century.
“Without a song, each day would be a century.”
Born in 1911, New Orleanian vocalist Mahalia Jackson was known as the Queen of Gospel. Entertainer Harry Belafonte called her “the single most powerful Black woman in the United States,” and to this day many Americans think of her voice as the soundtrack to the civil rights movement.
As Martin Luther King Jr. and others rallied Americans around their cause, Jackson was often right beside them leading with song. Her performance before King’s “I Have a Dream” speech was among her most famous, as was her rendition of “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” at his funeral.
VENERABLE HENRIETTE DELILLE, 1813-1862
Louisiana Creole of Color and Catholic nun from New Orleans
"I believe in God. I hope in God. I love. I want to live and die for God."
It is notable that the home of a team named the Saints has never been home to an actual Saint. That may all change thanks to Henriette Delille.
Delille was born in New Orleans in 1813 to a Frenchman and a free woman color. Delille was a devout Catholic and devoted herself to serving free and enslaved people of African descent.
It wasn’t easy for Delille to follow her calling. Many people were opposed to providing religious education to enslaved people and even to the idea of Black women serving as nuns. But Delille was determined. She founded what would become the Sisters of the Holy Family, the second Black religious order in the United States. The Sisters opened the first Catholic nursing home in the United States, cared for the sick and poor, and educated children of color. They continue much of that work today not only in Louisiana, but in the rest of the country and beyond. Pope Benedict XVI named Delille Venerable in 2010, and a miracle has been attributed to her. She is now just steps from potentially becoming the first native-born African American saint in the history of the United States.
JELLY ROLL MORTON, 1890-1941
American ragtime and jazz pianist, bandleader, and composer.
“Jazz music is to be played sweet, soft, plenty rhythm.”
Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe, better known as Jelly Roll Morton, once claimed to have invented jazz. While many disagree, there is no denying he was one of jazz music’s greats, playing a pivotal role in the genre’s development.
Morton was born in New Orleans’s Faubourg Marigny neighborhood sometime around 1890. By the age of 14, he was playing piano in the brothels of Storyville—the city’s red-light district—as well as touring the South in minstrel shows.
As a bandleader and composer, Morton worked in cities across the United States with many of his era’s top musicians. His greatest contribution, however, was as one of jazz’s first arrangers. Early jazz was defined by improvisation, but Morton proved the genre could thrive even when he notated his compositions on paper.
Morton is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and earned a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. During his decades-long career, he composed legendary pieces such as “Jelly Roll Blues” and “King Porter Stomp.”
MICAËLA ALMONESTER, BARONESS DE PONTALBA, 1795-1874
Wealthy New Orleans-born Creole aristocrat, businesswoman, and real estate designer and developer.
“I can now say that I have gone through my purgatory while still on this earth.”
The Baroness de Pontalba lived a life so dramatic that it inspired an opera. But the opera house isn’t the only place where she had an influence; one must only walk-through New Orleans’s French Quarter to see the Baroness’s immense legacy.
She was born in New Orleans in 1795, the sole heir to her father’s fortune. She joined a Creole aristocrat in an arranged marriage and returned with him to France. Their union was an unhappy and chaotic one that included her father-in-law shooting her four times at close range. After the shooting and lawsuits to regain control of her father’s fortune, the Baroness separated from her husband and returned to New Orleans. She found it a muddy, neglected mess. She went to work, demolishing run-down properties surrounding what is now Jackson Square and replacing them with the beautiful, red brick Pontalba Buildings that flank the Square today.