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Thomas Covington Dent Biography

From Academia to Activism, Worked with Free Southern Theater, Oral Historian, Selected writings


Writer, civil rights activist

Thomas Covington Dent, usually known as Tom Dent, was an author, a playwright, a poet, an essayist, a civil rights activist, and an oral historian. He was a leading member of a group of black writers who during the 1950s merged artistic expression with explorations of black identity. Combining the quest for self-identity and cultural identity with a political agenda that challenged racism and the status quo, these writers formed literary and performance-based organizations that developed into the Black Arts Movement. Dent, in all his many endeavors, always projected a forceful image of the black experience.

Dent was born on March 20, 1932 in New Orleans, Louisiana, the oldest of three sons born to Dr. Albert Walter and Ernestine Jessie (Covington) Dent. Dent's family was prominent and socially aware; his father was the president of historically black Dillard University and his mother was a teacher and a concert pianist. His grandfather, Dr. Jesse Covington, was a leader in the Booker T. Washington National Negro Business League and was instrumental in the founding of Riverside General Hospital, the first medical center for blacks in Houston, Texas. His grandmother, Belle Covington, was prominent in early interracial relations and a founding member of the Blue Triangle YWCA. Dent was educated at both public and private schools and graduated from Gilbert Academy, a black college preparatory school in New Orleans, in 1947.

After graduating from high school, Dent enrolled in Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, and earned a bachelor's degree in political science in 1952. During his senior year at Morehouse, Dent served as the editor-in-chief of the school's newspaper, the Tiger Maroon. Dent's editorials, which were often socially reflective and sometimes humorous, were his first foray into writing. Although his self-assured embrace of integration—he had been groomed from his youth to become a prominent member of society—would later turn dramatically toward concerns for racial integrity, his sharp wit remained a common character of his writing throughout his lifetime. During his summers off from school, Dent spent time with his maternal grandparents in Houston and worked as a cub reporter for the Houston Informer, the oldest continuously published black newspaper in Texas.

From Academia to Activism

In 1952 Dent began graduate studies in international relations at Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship. Over the next four years Dent became more and more involved in the developing civil rights movement. In 1956 he abandoned his studies before he completed his doctoral degree. From 1957 to 1959 he served in the U.S. Army. On his discharge, he moved to New York, where he became politically and culturally active in the fledgling Black Arts Movement.

From 1959 to 1960 Dent worked as a reporter for the black political newspaper New York Age, and then from 1960 to 1961 he served as a social worker for the New York Welfare Department. In 1961 he took a job as a press attaché and public information director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), where he assisted Thurgood Marshall. In 1960 Dent joined other black writers, including LeRoi Jones and Harold Cruse, in forming On Guard for Freedom, a black nationalist literary organization that became known for staging a highly publicized protest at the United Nations in response to the U.S. Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. The organization also produced the publication On Guard for Freedom, to which Dent contributed as a writer.

In 1962 Dent helped found the influential Umbra Writers' Workshop, a collective of writers, activists, and artisans from New York's lower east side. The workshop, which integrated the arts and the distinct identity of black America, included such writers as David Henderson, Ishmael Reed, Joe Johnson, Norman Pritchard, Askia M. Touré, Calvin Herton, and Archie Shepp. Umbra focused primarily on poetry and performance-based arts, and Dent worked with the organization's publication, Umbra Magazine, from 1962 to 1963. Umbra disbanded in 1964, mostly over the tensions caused by trying to balance the group's identity as both a literary and activist organization.

Worked with Free Southern Theater

In 1965 Dent returned to New Orleans for a short visit and he never left. He became involved with the black activist Free Southern Theater (FST), a community theater project, which had formed the previous year, and in 1966 he became the associate director, a position he held until 1970. The FST staged the work of black playwrights throughout the South, including Dent's plays Negro Study No. 34A, Riot Duty, Snapshot, and Features and Stuff. Dent also contributed to FST's literary journal Nkombo and served as the co-editor from 1968 to 1974. Like On Guard and Umbra, FST had a blended purpose of advancing both cultural and artistic agendas and provided an outlet for black artists who challenged the status quo and combated racism. Out of FST grew BLKARTSOUTH, a literary workshop co-founded by Dent and Kalamu ya Salaam. Both BLKARTSOUTH and the Southern Black Cultural Alliance, which Dent helped form in 1971, were instrumental in development black theater, especially in the South.

From 1968 to 1970 Dent also taught classes at Mary Holmes College in West Point, Mississippi. In 1969 he joined with Gilbert Moses and Richard Schechner to edit The Free Southern Theater by the Free Southern Theater. The book, which included letters, plays, poems, and essays, documented the role and history of the radical black theater. From 1971 to 1973 Dent worked as a public relations officer for the New Orleans-based Total Community Action.

In 1974 Dent was awarded a Whitney Young Fellowship and he earned a master's degree Goddard College in Vermont. In that same year he founded the Congo Square Writer's Union in New Orleans and edited the organization's literary journal, The Black River Journal. He also contributed to the journal. In 1976 Dent published his first collection of poetry, Magnolia Street, and his play, Ritual Murder, which became a classic of the Southern black theater, was first staged at the Ethiopian Theater in New Orleans. In the same year he joined with Jerry Ward and Charles Rowell to found the literary journal Callaloo. In 1982 he published his second poetry collection, Blue Lights and River Songs.

At a Glance …

Born on March 20, 1932, in New Orleans, LA; died on June 6, 1998, in New Orleans, LA; son of Jessie Covington Dent and Albert Dent; married Roberta Yancy (divorced). Education: Morehouse College, Atlanta, BA, 1952; attended Syracuse University, 1952-58; Goddard College, Vermont, MA, 1974. Military service: U.S. Army, 1957-59.

Career: Houston Informer, cub reporter, 1950-52; New York Age, reporter, 1959-60; On Guard for Freedom (political newspaper), writer, 1960; New York Welfare Department, social worker, 1960-61; NAACP, New York, press attaché and public information director, 1961-63; Umbra Magazine, co-founder and writer, 1962-63; Free Southern Theater, New Orleans, LA, associate director, 1966-70; Mary Holmes College, instructor, 1968-70; Nkombo (literary journal), coeditor, 1968-74; Total Community Action, New Orleans, LA, public relations officer, 1971-73; Southern Black Cultural Alliance, co-founder, 1971; Congo Square Writers Union, New Orleans, LA, founder, 1974; Callaloo (literary journal), co-founder, 1976; University of New Orleans, instructor, 1979-81; New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation, executive director, 1987-90; Tulane University, guest instructor, 1994.

Selected Memberships: African Literature Association; Oral History Association; Langston Hughes Society; New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation.

Selected Awards: Whitney Young Fellow, 1973-74.

Oral Historian

Although Dent was himself a poet, playwright, and author, he was even more influential as an advocate for civil rights and the black arts, and he spent much of his time between 1978 and 1985 conducting oral histories of Mississippi civil rights workers. He also conducted an oral history of New Orleans musicians. (The tape collections are housed at the Amistad Research Center in New Orleans). He also taught classes at the University of New Orleans from 1979 to 1981 and was a guest lecturer at Tulane University in 1994. Between 1984 and 1986 he collaborated with Andrew Young on Young's autobiography, An Easy Burden, and from 1987 to 1990 he served as the executive director of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation.

After spending much of 1991 traveling through the South, visiting locations of important civil rights events in North and South Carolina, Florida, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, in 1997 Dent published Southern Journey: A Return to the Civil Rights Movement, which documents his findings of how the civil rights movement is remembered and what impact it had on the Southern mindset. Prior to his death Dent was working on a collection of essays addressing the civil rights movement in New Orleans and a collection of personal essays exploring the quest for self-identity and racial identity. He died in Charity Hospital in New Orleans on June 6, 1998, from complications after a heart attack. He was 67 years old.

Selected writings


(Editor, with Richard Schechner and Gilbert Moses) The Free Southern Theater, by the Free Southern Theater, Bobb-Merrill, 1969.

Southern Journey: A Return to the Civil Rights Movement, W. Morrow, 1997.


Negro Study No. 34A, Free Southern Theater, New Orleans, 1969.

Riot Duty, Free Southern Theater, New Orleans, 1969.

Snapshot, Free Southern Theater, New Orleans, 1970.

Feathers and Stuff, Free Southern Theater, New Orleans, 1970.

Ritual Murder, Ethiopian Theater, New Orleans, 1976.


Magnolia Street, privately printed, 1979; reprinted, 1987.

Blue Lights and River Songs: Poems, Lotus Press, 1982.



Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 38: Afro-American Writers After 1955: Dramatists and Prose Writers, Gale Group, 1985.


The Mississippi Quarterly, Spring 1999, p. 213.

Obsidian II, Winter 1989, pp. 100-102.


"Reporters and Writers: Tom Dent," Reporting Civil Rights, www.reportingcivilrights.org/authors/bio.jsp?authorId=12 (January 10, 2005).

"Thomas C. Dent," Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (February 8, 2005).

"Tom Covington Dent," Chickenbones: A Journal, www.nathanielturner.com/tomdentbio.htm (January 10, 2005).

"Tom Dent: A New Orleans Writer," The Black Collegian Online, http://www.black-collegian.com/african/dent9.shtml (January 10, 2005).

Ward, Jerry W., Jr., "The Art of Tom Dent: Early Evidence." Chickenbones: A Journal, www.nathanielturner.com/artoftomdent.htm (January 10, 2005).

—Kari Bethel

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