Dent, Tom (1932-1998) | Amistad Research Center
Tom Dent, New Orleans-born poet, essayist, playwright, teacher, and oral historian was an active participant in the Black Arts and Civil Rights Movements. He was a leading literary figure in New Orleans, publishing two books of poetry, Magnolia Street (1976) and Blue Lights and River Songs (1982), and a prolific oral historian, whose work culminated with the publishing of his book, Southern Journey: A Return to the Civil Rights Movement (1997).
Thomas Covington Dent was born on March 20, 1932, to Albert Walter Dent and Ernestine Jessie Covington Dent, and was the oldest of three sons. Dr. Albert W. Dent was the president of Dillard University (1941-1969). Jessie Covington Dent was a trained classical pianist originally from Houston, Texas, and trained at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and a fellow of the Juilliard Musical Foundation. The Dent's were a prominent New Orleans family active in the Black community and often hosts to well-known individuals of the civil rights era.
Tom Dent graduated from Gilbert Academy in 1947 at the age of fifteen. He attended Morehouse College, receiving a Bachelors of Arts in political science in 1952. During his time at Morehouse, he was the editor of the college's literary newspaper, The Maroon Tiger. He also worked as a news reporter for The Houston Informer (1950-1951) while at Morehouse. Dent continued his studies in political science at Syracuse University (1952-1956), and while there became a fan of the music of David Brubeck. Dent served as a Private First Class (PFC) in the United States Army at the Ireland Army Hospital in Fort Knox, Kentucky (1957-1959), and during this time participated in a Writer's Digest short story course through the mail.
Dent chose to discontinue his studies in Syracuse and moved to New York to become immersed in writing. Early on during the New York years (1959-1965) he became involved in political activities that coincided to the emergence of Black Nationalism. Dent became a news reporter for the New York Age (1959) and was appointed press liaison for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (1960-1963) by Thurgood Marshall. This position took Dent to several hot spots of the Civil Rights Movement, including Jackson, Mississippi, where he became involved in getting James Meredith admitted as the first Black student of the University of Mississippi in Oxford.
Through the community in Harlem, Dent helped to produce a journal called On Guard for Freedom, which represented an early Black Nationalist artists' group and included members such as LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), Harold Cruse, and Calvin Hicks. Involvement with this group and its activities lead to the creation of the Umbra Writers' Workshop (1962-1964) on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, for which Dent was a founding member. The roots of the Black arts literary movement came from the Umbra collective of young writers involved in the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School founded by LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka). The Umbra Writers' Workshop members included Steve Cannon, Tom Dent, Al Haynes, David Henderson, Ishmael Reed, and Askia M. Toure (Roland Snelling). The group's literary magazine, Umbra, featured poetry and other genres of creative writing, and became one of the earliest and most prominent "little magazines" that focused on African American writing.
Tom Dent returned to New Orleans in 1965 after the disbanding of the Umbra workshop. He did not intend to stay in New Orleans, but discovered new things about the city that were different from when he had left fifteen years earlier. One major discovery was the Free Southern Theater (FST) founded by John O'Neal and Gilbert Moses as an integrated Tougaloo Drama Workshop at Tougaloo College, Mississippi, in 1963. Dent had met John O'Neal previously in New York and by the time he returned to the south, the FST was based in New Orleans. Dent became the Associate Director (1966-1970) and authored a one-act play, Ritual Murder (1967). The FST was organized as an integrated touring company that used volunteers to play for civil rights centers of the south, particularly in Mississippi. The administration of the company was often divided as to its direction. Gilbert Moses attempted in 1965 to reorganize the FST into an all-Black company with its base in New Orleans; however, John O'Neal and the fundraising committee were based in New York. The new Black orientation of the theater caused confusion for the integrated New York-based fundraising committee, and by 1967 there were conflicts about the direction of the theater between the groups in New Orleans and New York. The touring concept coming from New York at the time was to hire professional Black actors from New York for the touring season. As the direction of the theater continued to be in conflict throughout the late sixties, Dent's development of the New Orleans-based community workshop program progressed.
Dent's journey of self-discovery found resolution in New Orleans with a sense of belonging to the South and to its Black community. As the core group of the FST left for New York and the administration of the theater fractured, Dent became convinced the idea of his work and its sense of the South must continue to be done in the South. The FST community workshop program, established in 1967, was spearheaded by Dent's desire to develop an artistic project within the New Orleans community. The acting and writing workshops cultivated local talent to produce quality work for the theater's use, with multiple programs organized separately from the touring company. The result of the program was the BLKARTSOUTH creative writing and acting workshops and Nkombo literary magazine. The group of writers and actors was jointly directed by Dent and Bob "Big Daddy" Costley and became BLKARTSOUTH in 1969. The goals of the workshop were to develop new literary and theatrical materials for use by the FST. The performing ensemble performed poetry and short plays throughout the South and produced five mimeographed books of poetry in 1969.
Nkombo literary magazine, published in nine issues from 1969 to 1974 in New Orleans, was unique with the purpose of producing plays and poetry to enhance the work of Black theater and literature during the period of the Black Arts Movement. A predecessor issue in December of 1968, under the title Echoes from the Gumbo, published the first works of the members of the workshop program. Dent was the main force behind the magazine as founder and co-editor along with a young member of the group Val Ferdinand (Kalamu ya Salaam). Dent envisioned a collective of southern Black writers who would be creatively nurtured within the community. BLKARTSOUTH separated from the FST and evolved into the Southern Black Cultural Alliance with the partnership between Tom Dent and Kalamu ya Salaam solidified in Nkombo Publications (1971). Dent hoped a regional association of southern community theaters and programs would provide financial support and an exchange of ideas for southern writers. At the time of the last issue of Nkombo in 1974, Kalamu ya Salaam was focused on his work with the Black Collegian magazine and Dent was focusing on establishing the Congo Square Writer's Union and another literary journal, The Black River Journal (1977). Throughout the life of Nkombo, financial difficulties often delayed its publication.
Dent taught creative writing at Mary Holmes Junior College in West Point, Mississippi (1968-1970), and at the University of New Orleans (1979-1981). He was a community organizer for the Social Welfare Planning Council (1965-1966) to address relief efforts in the Lower Ninth Ward section of New Orleans after Hurricane Betsy. Dent also worked as the public relations officer (1971-1973) and Assistant to the Executive Director for Publications (1975-1978) for Total Community Action, a community service non-profit organization in New Orleans. He worked to complete a Masters degree in poetry and black literature at Goddard College in Vermont (1974). He married Roberta "Bobbi" Yancy, a friend he had met through the FST, on April 6, 1974, at Christ Chapel Riverside Church in New York. The couple was often separated by work and location and divorced in 1980. During this period, Dent's first volume of poetry, Magnolia Street (1976), was published and described by David Henderson as a "heavy trip through New Orleans." These poems were devoted to local places and events, such as the Mardi Gras parade of the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, the lakefront, the balcony of the Orpheum Theater, and the local culture and society of New Orleans.
The mid-to-late seventies was a turning point in Dent's work as he became involved in documenting events through oral history projects. He received grants to conduct oral history projects of Mississippi civil rights workers (1978-1985) and interviews of New Orleans and Acadian musicians (1984). He worked with photographer Roy Lewis, to conduct oral histories documenting the isolated historic Louisiana Black communities along the Mississippi River from Phoenix to Donaldsonville (1976-1980). Lewis also worked as Dent's photographer for the Mississippi oral history project. Dent continued his literary work as co-founder of Callaloo (1976 - ), an African American southern journal of arts and letters, with Charles H. Rowell.
As early as 1979, Dent was working on the autobiography of his childhood friend, Andrew Young. Though he was officially hired as a consultant (1981-1982), he continued to work on the book until 1986. Dent traveled to Atlanta, Georgia, to conduct a series of interviews with Young, then researched New Orleans and civil rights era history for the draft of the book, with the working title "An Easy Burden" (1982).
The eighties continued to be a period of creative, community, and historical writing projects for Dent. He wrote a screenplay with Michael Goodwin entitled "Heaven Before I Die" (1984) and published another book of poetry, Blue Lights and River Songs (1982). Throughout Dent's life, he was a prolific writer of journals and notebooks. In 1986, he started work on a book with the working title "New Orleans Journal," which would encompass numerous prose sketches on New Orleans parades, streets, neighborhoods, funerals, politics, music, and portraits written from 1968 to 1975.
Dent was the executive director of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation, Inc. (1987-1990). He wrote the documentary New Orleans Brass (1990), commissioned by the National Geographic Explorer television series, which was produced and directed by veteran filmmaker St. Clair Bourne. The production was coordinated by Kalamu ya Salaam and Bright Moments, Inc.
Oral history projects continued to dominate much of Dent's work as he set out again to document historic Black communities and the era of civil rights, by expanding his interviews beyond Mississippi and the River to encompass what he considered the "Deep South," the states of Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, and South Carolina (1991-1996). The culmination of hundreds of interviews resulted in his book, Southern Journey: A Return to the Civil Rights Movement (1997).
Thomas Covington Dent died on June 6, 1998, at the age of 66 in New Orleans.
Tom Dent papers at the Amistad Research Center at Tulane University, New Orleans, Louisiana.
Salaam, Kalamu ya, "Enriching the paper trail: an interview with Tom Dent," African American Review. 27:N2 (Summer 1993).
Salaam, Kalamu ya, "Black Arts Movement," The Oxford Companion to African American Literature, (New York, Oxford University Press, 1997).
Salaam, Kalamu ya, "Art for life: my story, my song," Chicken Bones: A Journal for Literary and Artistic African-American Themes. (www.nathanielturner.com/artforlife8.htm)