The Theatrical Education of Louisiana's Black Radicals: Performance and Political Activism in Nineteenth-Century Louisiana

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OBrion, Laura Carrington, History - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Hill Edwards, Justene, AS-History (HIST), University of Virginia
Janney, Caroline, AS-History (HIST), University of Virginia
Varon, Elizabeth, AS-History (HIST), University of Virginia

During Reconstruction, African American politicians in Louisiana, including Lieutenant Governor Oscar James Dunn, made equal access to theatres a key component of their civil rights legislative agenda, which was repeatedly tested in court in the decades preceding the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling in 1896. This essay investigates the importance of the theatre to New Orleans’s Black community throughout the antebellum period, illuminating how a diverse group of Black residents, including Dunn’s own family, relied on theatres for income and cultural expression. This study aims to reevaluate the existing scholarly characterization of Louisiana’s desegregation efforts as purely elite, and to build on emerging efforts to write African Americans back into nineteenth-century theatre history. I argue that maintaining access to theatres was a key goal for diverse Black communities during Reconstruction, rather than a side project of a privileged few. This perspective allows us to reconsider the desegregation efforts of Black Radicals during Reconstruction as part of a longer fight for cultural identity formation, rather than simply a modern political strategy.

MA (Master of Arts)
Civil Rights, Reconstruction, Theatre, Louisiana
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