Tom Dent: 20th Century Renaissance Man

Amistad Research Center

Tom Dent (1932-1998) was one of New Orleans’ most treasured poets, playwrights, and oral historians. He was a leading literary figure in New Orleans and an active participant in the Black Arts Movement.

Tom Dent's Early Life
Thomas Covington Dent was born in New Orleans on March 20, 1932 to Dr. Albert Walter Dent and Ernestine Jessie Covington Dent. Albert Dent was the president of Dillard University and Jessie Dent was a classical pianist who trained at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. Tom Dent was the oldest of three sons in a prominent New Orleans family that was very active in the Black community.

Tom Dent graduated from Gilbert Academy in New Orleans in 1947 at the impressive age of fifteen. This photo was taken the year he graduated from high school.

In this letter Tom Dent thanked his grandparents, Jennie Belle Covington and Dr. Benjamin Jesse Covington, for sending him birthday gifts. The young teenager was thrilled saying, "Thank you very much for the check, candy, and beautiful card you sent me. I did not want you to go to so much trouble on my birthday however, the candy is wonderful and all of my roommates love it."

After high school, Tom Dent attended Morehouse College where he received a B.A. in political science in 1952. He was the editor of the college's newspaper, The Maroon Tiger, and also worked as a news reporter for the The Houston Informer during summer breaks. Although Dent was interested in political science, working as a journalist provided a new career option for him to consider.

After college, Tom Dent served as a Private First Class in the U.S. Army at the Ireland Army Hospital in Fort Knox, Kentucky. While there, he continued to focus on his writing, filling his army notebooks with personal writings such as this love poem.

Dent wrote, "Tonight I wish to write to "someone special." This is the time for it. I am in the mood for it. I have a need for it. I remember the street of dreams, but there is no one now..."

The New York Years: Umbra Writer's Workshop
Tom Dent moved to New York in 1959 after serving in the U.S. Army. Dent helped to produce a journal titled "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. This group soon evolved into the Umbra Writer's Workshop (1962-1964) where Dent was a founding member. Dent would sometimes host Umbra meetings at his East 2nd Street apartment on Manhattan's Lower East Side. 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. 

Left to right: Askia Muhammad Toure, Lorenzo Thomas, and Ishmael Reed at an Umbra workshop meeting.

In the audio clip, poet Kalamu ya Salaam interviews Tom Dent regarding the ideological differences amongst Umbra members. Dent's participation in Umbra served as an influence in his life long after the group disbanded.

Kalamu ya Salaam and Tom Dent

Left to right: Calvin C. Hernton, Norman Pritchard, and Charles Patterson at an Umbra workshop meeting.

Left to right: Jane Logan Poindexter, Ann Guilfoyle, Ishmael Reed, and Nora Hicks at an Umbra workshop meeting.

Tom Dent and Al Haynes (background) at an Umbra Workshop meeting.

Tom Dent in his apartment on East 2nd Street in New York City.

Free Southern Theater  & BLKARTSOUTH
Tom Dent returned to New Orleans in 1965 after the disbandment of the Umbra Writers Workshop. Initially, Dent did not intend to stay in New Orleans, but he soon discovered new and attractive changes about the city. One major discovery was the Free Southern Theater (FST), founded by John O'Neal and Gilbert Moses in 1963. Dent had previously met John O'Neal in New York and by the time he returned home, the FST had moved its base from Mississippi to New Orleans. Dent served as its Associate Director from 1966-1970.

Tom Dent's journey of self-discovery blossomed in New Orleans as he developed a sense of belonging to the South and the Black community. Dent established the Free Southern Theater's community workshop program in 1967. He was largely driven by the desire to create an artistic project within New Orleans.

In this letter to Murray Levy, actor and business manager for the Free Southern Theater, Tom Dent discussed his and Bob "Big Daddy" Costley's work to combine the writer and acting workshops. Dent also spoke of a young and talented local New Orleans writer named Val Ferdinand (Kalamu ya Salaam). Kalamu ya Salaam would later become a well known poet, author, and social activist.

One of the literary programs that developed within the Free Southern Theater (FST) was the BLKARTSOUTH creative writing and acting workshops. BLKARTSOUTH was jointly directed by Tom Dent and Bob "Big Daddy" Costley. The goals of the workshop were to develop new literary and theatrical materials for use by the FST. The BLKARTSOUTH ensemble performed poetry and short plays throughout the South and produced five mimeographed books of poetry in 1969.

Poetry, Plays, and Prose
Tom Dent's first published work was a poem "Come Visit My Garden" in Langston Hughes' anthology "New Negro Poets, U.S.A." (1964). As a poet and playwright, the strengths of Dent's literary work embodies the flavor of New Orleans culture during the 1960s and 1970s and includes sketches of poverty, African American life, Mardi Gras, music, parades, and the city's neighborhoods.  

Dent authored Ritual Murder: A One Act Play in 1967 for use by the Free Southern Theater. It is considered a classic in New Orleans theater. The play's themes highlight the stresses of oppression and how these circumstances can often lead to violence.

The audio clip offers a snippet into the synopsis of the play.

Ritual Murder, Ethiopian Theater, 1976.

Tom Den't first book of poetry titled Magnolia Street was published in 1976. In the preface of Magnolia Street, Dent spoke of his goals for the book saying, "I thought it important to portray the city's Black community and culture, which has been so brilliantly rendered through music, but almost totally ignored in literature."

Tom Dent's second book of poetry, Blue Lights and River Songs, published in 1982, was infused with his experiences of being a member of the Black community in the South. The book's four sections covers urban street scenes, places and individuals of inspiration, the return and rediscovery of the South based upon ritual and traditions, race and racism, and daily life.

Tom Dent (seated far right) during a 1980 meeting of the Congo Square Poets. The group sought to highlight the Southern Black experience, particularly that of New Orleanians. Also pictured is Kalamu ya Salaam (standing far right), James Baldwin (seated in foreground), and Lolis Elie (second from left).

Tom Dent (left) and poet Kalamu ya Salaam (right) on the Koindu stage at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 1980.

A typescript draft of Tom Dent's poem, "An Audience Participation Poem." The poem critiques both New Orleans culture as well as misinterpretations of the city by outsiders. The poem exhibits the love-hate relationship often felt by local New Orleanians for their city.

Preserving Voices of the Civil Rights Movement
In the 1970s, Dent began to embark on several oral history projects, many focusing on the Civil Rights Movement. He conducted oral history interviews of civil rights activists, New Orleans and Acadian musicians, and the isolated, historic Louisiana Black communities along the Mississippi River from Phoenix to Donaldsonville. Dent's work with capturing the Civil Rights Movement began when he was the information director for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund where he and his camera had a front row seat to the major protests of the 1960s.

Tom Dent worked on the autobiography of his childhood friend, civil rights leader, Andrew Young. Dent traveled to Atlanta to conduct a series of interviews with Young. He then researched New Orleans and civil rights history for a draft of the book with the working title, An Easy Burden. Dent’s manuscript was used for the final version of the book published in 1996.

In the audio clip, Dent interviews Young who discusses a conversation he had with his wife, Jean Childs Young, regarding the Ku Klux Klan and the use of non-violent tactics.

Tom Dent and Andrew Young

From 1991 to 1996, Dent traveled to Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, Louisiana and South Carolina to document the stories of civil rights activists. The culmination of these oral histories resulted in his book, Southern Journey: A Return to the Civil Rights Movement (1997).

In the audio clip, Tom Dent interviews civil rights activist and leader, Unita Blackwell, in Mississippi in 1990. Blackwell discussed the desegregation of schools and how Black activists were punished for their activism by being denied employment.

Tom Dent and Unita Blackwell

A photo of NAACP Field Officer, Medgar Evers (left), and writer, James Baldwin (right), taken by Tom Dent during his time as the information officer for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

A snapshot of a NAACP member protesting color line barriers in Atlanta hotel lodgings, circa 1960-1963. This photo was taken by Tom Dent during his time as the information officer for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

SNCC Executive Secretary, James Forman (left), and civil rights activist, Julian Bond (right), circa 1960-1963. This photo was taken by Tom Dent during his time as the information officer for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

Vivian Malone and James Hood were plaintiffs in a highly publicized lawsuit against the University of Alabama. Malone and Hood would become the first black students to enroll at the university in 1963. This photo of Malone and Hood was taken by Tom Dent during his time as the information officer for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

Music & Culture
Tom Dent's life-long passion was music. He came from a household where classical music (his mother’s specialty) was regularly played and he was first exposed to jazz in the 1950s. Dent’s interest in music can be seen in his poetry, writings, and oral histories. Dent regularly attended a variety of musical festivals and performances to capture the sonic culture of New Orleans. He also shared a relationship with photographers such as Bernard M. Hermann, Larry Songy, and Lloyd Medley Jr. Their photographs, which documented Black cultural life in New Orleans, sometimes accompanied Dent's written works about the city.

Tom Dent (left) with an audiotape recorder in hand documents a group of paraders during a second line performance of the Olympia Brass Band in New Orleans, circa 1980. Dent often attended and recorded cultural events throughout New Orleans.

The audio, recorded by Dent, consists of a performance by the Olympia Brass Band.

Olympia Brass Band performance

In this photograph by Larry Songy, a man second lines on Royal Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans, circa 1975.

Images such as this one of a young drummer boy allow for a glimpse of the deep importance of music to New Orleanians.

This photo by Lloyd Medley Jr. captures the varying niches of culture and self-expression found in New Orleans. Pictured is a funeral procession.

A group of men dance and rejoice in the streets during a second line parade in New Orleans, circa 1975.

Big Chief Jake (center) of the White Eagles Mardi Gras Indians on Claiborne Avenue in New Orleans, 1981.

The audio, recorded by Tom Dent, consists of a performance of Tambourine and Fan at a St. Joseph's Day parade in New Orleans, which includes the chants and drums of Mardi Gras Indians. Dent was also able to capture the vibrancy of the crowd.

Tambourine and Fan performance
Amistad Research Center
Credits: Story

Digital exhibition curated by Chianta Dorsey and Julia Engel. This digital exhibition is an expansion of the physical exhibition, “Tom Dent: A Heavy Trip Through the South,” curated by Laura Thomson and held at the Amistad Research Center in 2010.

The Amistad Research Center is committed to collecting, preserving, and providing open access to original materials that reference the social and cultural importance of America's ethnic and racial history, the African Diaspora, and global social justice movements. As the nation's oldest, largest and most comprehensive independent archive, the Amistad's holds 800 manuscript collections which include over ten million documents from the 1780s to present, 250,000 original photographs dating from 1859, 1200 audiovisual recordings, 40,000 book titles, 2000 periodicals titles, and over 400 pieces of fine art dating from the 19th century.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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