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50 Years/50 Collections - New Orleans Movers and Shakers: The Dent Family

March 21, 2016

 

The papers of the Dent family of New Orleans provide a significant portrait of a prominent African American family during the era of the modern civil rights movement. Amistad received the initial deposit of the papers of patriarch Albert W. Dent, and his first born son Tom Dent in 1976, with continued additions until the death of the family’s matriarch, Jessie Covington Dent, in 2001. These two collections, the Albert and Jessie Dent Papers and the Tom Dent Papers, span over hundred years of family and civil rights history in Texas and Louisiana (1861-2001). They have become some of the most accessed collections at the Amistad Research Center.
 
The strengths of these collections encompass the development of Dillard University (1935) and Flint-Goodridge Hospital in New Orleans. These institutions were designed to meet the higher educational and medical needs of Black New Orleanians, including the first accredited college nursing program in Louisiana. The papers also provide a rich source of documentation regarding African American literature and theater, extensive interviews of civil rights workers, and the society and culture of New Orleans’ Black community dating from the 1930s to the 1990s. The Dents were an affluent family in the community often in contact with civil rights activists and leaders including Andrew Young, John Hope II, Fannie C. Williams, A.P. Tureaud, John Hope Franklin, Ernest N. Morial, Sargent Shriver, Roy Wilkins, and many more. Additionally, between Jessie Dent’s musical career and her son Tom’s involvement in theater and literature, the papers contain individual documentation for various artists and writers, such as Marian Anderson, Amiri Baraka, Edward Kamau Braithewait, David Henderson, Ishmael Reed, and more.

Educator, hospital administrator, and President of Dillard University (1941-1969), Albert Walter Dent was born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1904. His father was a day laborer who died shortly before his birth and his mother a domestic, who worked several jobs to support the family. Dent attended Morehouse College graduating in 1926 with a degree in accounting. He worked at the Atlanta Life Insurance Company and the Safety Construction Company in Houston, Texas post-graduation. At the urging of John Hope, President of Morehouse College, Dent returned in 1931 to become the college’s alumni secretary and director of its endowment campaign. While working at Morehouse, Dent met Will W. Alexander, the acting President of Dillard University. Alexander hired Dent as the superintendent of Flint-Goodridge Hospital. Dent served as the superintendent of the hospital and business manager of Dillard University until 1941 when he was elected as the third president of the university. He held the position for twenty-eight years.  

 

Ernestine Jessie Covington Dent was a concert pianist, educator, community leader, and the wife of Albert Walter Dent. She was a graduate of Oberlin Conservatory of Music and a fellow of the Juilliard Musical Foundation. Born in 1904 in Houston Texas, she was the only child of Dr. Benjamin Jesse and Jennie Bell (nee Murphy) Covington. Dr. Covington was a noted Houston physician. Jessie was awarded four consecutive fellowships from the Juilliard Musical Foundation between 1924 and 1928. She studied with eminent artist and teacher Olga Samaroff Stokouski. In 1926 she organized the first African American choir to sing at the all-white Southern Baptist Convention. On returning to Houston in 1928, Jessie opened a private studio, teaching piano. Between 1929 and 1930, she traveled as an accompanist and piano soloist with Madame Florence Cole Talbert who composed the music for the Delta Sigma Theta National Hymn. Mrs. Dent was extremely involved in various community organizations within New Orleans, as well as campus life at Dillard University. She was a member of the B-Sharp Music Club, the Dillard Women’s Club, the Flint-Goodridge Hospital Women’s Axillary, and a board member of the New Orleans Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra. In 1954, she was honored by the National Association of Negro Musicians, Inc. and in 1956, based on her suggestion; the Ebony Fashion Fair was created to help support Flint-Goodridge Hospital. Jessie Covington married Albert Walter Dent in 1931 and the couple had three sons, Thomas Covington (1932-1998), Benjamin Albert (1936- ) and Walter Jesse (1939- ).

 

Tom Dent was a poet, essayist, playwright, teacher, and oral historian. He was an active participant in the Black Arts and Civil Rights Movements. A leading literary figure in New Orleans, Dent published two books of poetry, Magnolia Street (1976) and Blue Lights and River Songs (1982). As a prolific oral historian, Dent also authored a book of oral histories titled, Southern Journey: A Return to the Civil Rights Movement (1997). Dent was a founding member of the Umbra Writers’ Workshop (1962-1964) in New York City and became involved in the Free Southern Theater (FST) in New Orleans in 1965. The mid-to-late seventies was a turning point in Dent's work as he became involved in documenting historical events through oral history projects. He received grants to conduct oral history projects of Mississippi civil rights workers (1978-1985) and worked with photographer Roy Lewis to conduct oral histories documenting the isolated Louisiana Black communities from Phoenix to Donaldsonville (1976-1980). He set out again to document the era of civil rights by expanding his interviews beyond Mississippi 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). Dent continued his literary work as co-founder of Callaloo (1976-), an African American southern journal of arts and letters, with Charles H. Rowell. He was the executive director of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation, Inc. (1987-1990).
 

 

Images from the Dent Family papers and the Tom Dent papers. Images from Amistad’s website, newsletters, and blogs cannot be reproduced without permission.

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