If you’re thinking a 256-page book on Reconstruction era-Louisiana is too pedagogic for your summer reading list, would you reconsider it if it were mostly illustrations? Dr. Brian Mitchell, an assistant professor of history at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, penned “Monumental: Oscar Dunn and His Radical Fight in Reconstruction Louisiana” earlier this year, and news comes this week that it’s been awarded the Phillis Wheatley Book Award, given by the Sons & Daughters of the United States Middle Passage to books published within the last five years covering the topic of American Slavery.
“I believe that graphic histories capture the attention of students who process visually,” Mitchell said earlier this year. “I believe that they capture the imagination and that they inspire students, particularly students of color to see themselves in the fabric of our nation. Images are powerful and I believe that there are valuable lessons that we can learn from Reconstruction. So much of the Dunn narrative mirrors the division, distrust and violence that is going on today. I’m hoping that the text can help open discourses around race, citizenship and politics in our nation’s high schools and colleges.”
Mitchell worked with editor Nick Weldon and illustrator Barrington Edwards on the book, which follows Dunn as he was born into slavery, emancipated at age 10, elected lieutenant governor of Louisiana in 1868 and died mysteriously in 1873, just as he was poised to become Louisiana’s first Black governor. “It was right on the verge of Warmoth’s impeachment that Dunn dies,” Mitchell said in 2017, back when the book was still in its early stages. “Had Dunn lived, he would have become the first African-American governor in the U.S. Many of his supporters contended that Dunn’s conveniently timed death was due to poisoning.”
Mitchell is a great-great-great nephew of Dunn’s, and he first heard tales of Dunn’s life from his great-grandmother when he was a child. It’s Mitchell’s first graphic history — his writing thus far has been in the realm of scholarly research — but he hopes it’s not the last.
“I created a graphic history in hopes of providing access to the narrative to a wider audience,” Mitchell said. “I am hoping that ‘Monumental’ will help secondary education teachers and professors at universities to discuss Reconstruction and Reconstruction’s black leadership in classrooms across our nation.”