To visit the Paul Laurence Dunbar House in Dayton, Ohio is to step back into the world of late Victorian America. You can almost hear the clop of horse hooves on cobblestones, smell the heavy tobacco of cigars and taste the earthy bite of old fashioned root beer as you walk through these rooms and look out the old windows at the cobblestone street and narrow side yard. Dunbar lived in this house for the last two years of his life and died on the first floor in the family parlor. His mother Matilda resided there until her death in 1934, after which the house was purchased by the state of Ohio in 1936. It has been since that time under the control of Ohio History Connection (formerly the Ohio Historical Society) and is now managed for Ohio History Connection by the National Park Service. It is the country’s first publicly owned memorial to an African-American. It is more than well worth a visit for anyone who is interested in Dunbar, in American and African-American history and literature, or Ohio history. It opened in 1938.
Paul Dunbar is one of America’s important late nineteenth century poets. He was born in Dayton on June 27, 1872. His parents had both been slaves. His father, a Civil War veteran, divorced Paul’s mother Matilda, and Matilda raised Paul on her own.
She did all she could to give him opportunities for success. Paul became an outstanding student and graduated from high school, where he edited the school newspaper and served as president of the literary society. But the young man found the outside world after high school to be much less welcoming. The hard realities of the color line closed off many options for the gifted young man.
He worked as an elevator operator in a downtown Dayton office building while continuing to write. He gave public readings whenever possible and self-published his first two books of poems, the second of which—Majors and Minors—found its way to prominent American novelist, critic, and man of letters William Dean Howells, himself a native Ohioan. Howells praised the book in the pages of the Atlantic, and Dunbar’s career took off. He became a popular and prolific poet, short story writer, journalist, and novelist. He also wrote lyrics for musical theater productions. He courted and married Alice Ruth Moore, later known as Alice Dunbar Nelson, a writer from New Orleans. He was a friend of Presidents and celebrities.
By the time Dunbar returned to Dayton to live in the house he purchased for his mother for $4100, he was in bad shape. He was suffering from tuberculosis and his marriage to Alice Moore had fallen apart. The couple had separated, and Dunbar never saw his wife again after returning to Dayton. Dunbar had also become an alcoholic—doctors prescribed whiskey and other spirits for TB in those days—which worsened the condition—and Dunbar had also become dependent on drink to cope with the pressures of fame and heavy work demands. Dunbar died on February 9, 1906 at the age of thirty-three.
The Dunbar House is located at 219 Paul Laurence Dunbar Street, formerly North Summit Street. The site is part of the National Aviation Heritage Area, a historic district of eighteen sites centered on the Wright Brothers and the area’s importance in the development of flight and subsequent aviation history. Dunbar’s home is included within the district given his importance to Dayton history, his importance and excellence as a writer, his rise to fame in the years when the Wright brothers were at work developing their machines, and his friendship with the two men. Paul Dunbar and the Wright brothers were classmates. There is also an excellent display on Dunbar in the Wright Cycle Company and Visitor Center nearby. The Dunbar House is also part of a specific complex of six sites known as the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park.
A visitors center was built next to the Dunbar House in the early 2000s as the house underwent restoration. The center has an excellent collection of Dunbar artifacts and handsome large-scale reproductions of covers of some of Dunbar’s books. The artifacts in the collection help bring Dunbar the man alive. Visitors can see his shoes, pipes, bicycle, baby dress, a slate tablet, a cane with flask and also the ceremonial sword he wore in President McKinley’s 1901 inaugural parade. Another displays case contains items Dunbar acquired on his travels in the western United States. Visitors also get to watch an interesting fifteen-minute film that relates details of Dunbar’s short life. Because Dunbar’s mother lived there for twenty-nine years after his death and preserved the house much as it was in his time, the house is a particularly compelling example of a well-preserved literary site. The early 21st century preservation effort helped restore the look of the rooms during the time Dunbar lived there.
The tour first takes you into the area of the house containing the parlors. There is a large formal parlor room where visitors can see the family Bible prominently displayed. Here Paul Dunbar and his mother would receive guests formally.
This room has pocket doors that separate it from a more intimate and private family parlor space. It was in this family parlor that Paul Dunbar died on February 9, 1906.
The tour next wends into a dining room, which features a rocking bench that belonged to Matilda Dunbar with a place where a baby could rest. Matilda rocked Paul on this bench when he was a child.
The dining room table is the centerpiece here, but another interesting feature is the hutch, which actually has a hideaway bed in the back.
Next is the kitchen. Because of Dunbar’s success, the family could afford not only a nice two story house but also a number of creature comforts that were unknown to other people, African-American or otherwise. The family had a phone, a gas stove, and a hot water heater.
Beyond the kitchen is a summer kitchen, where cooking was done in warmer weather, and where washing was done as well.
The tour continues upstairs. The first room is Matilda’s sewing room, and then her bedroom.
Her bed features a striking quilt, and a number of smaller family photographs are displayed on the dresser.
Next are two of the most remarkable rooms in the house: Dunbar’s bedroom and his study, or “loafin” holt.” In the bedroom sits Dunbar’s Remington typewriter on a small desk. One of his hat boxes and a pair of shoes rest on top of a chest at the foot of his bed.
The next room is the study that Dunbar referred to as his “loafin’ holt.” This is where Dunbar liked to read, write, and rest. During the past two times I have visited the house, docents have jokingly referred to the loafing holt as his “man cave.” The term is apt. Dunbar liked to spend long hours in the holt. The room has bookshelves containing many of his books, and souvenirs from his travels. Photos of his friends and family are displayed.
Dunbar often moved back and forth from the holt to his bedroom as he worked on his writing. The holt also contains the daybed Dunbar liked to relax on. He died on this daybed in the family parlor.
The bathroom is the final stop on the upstairs tour. Visitors can see the old time sink, toilet, and bathtub, along with Dunbar’s large old fashioned toothbrush.
The room also has a special hot water tank. A docent on one of my past visits informed me that the tank could also release quantities of steam into the bathroom, serving as a kind of humidifier.
One special item of interest is the wallpaper in the room. A small section of the original wallpaper was found behind a cabinet during the early 2000s while restoration was occurring, giving preservationists valuable guidance on the room’s original look. Reproductions of the original wallpaper were made.
There are varying dates on when the house was constructed. One of the displays at the visitors center indicates that the house “was constructed in about 1880” and is “designed in a transitional style between Queen Anne and Italianate.” Other dates I have heard of include 1888 and 1894. The two story stable building where Dunbar kept horses and a sulky is still standing behind the house. The neighborhood during Dunbar’s time was middle class and also home to a number of immigrants from eastern Europe. The neighborhood today offers striking contrasts between well maintained older homes and more run-down properties, some of which are vacant and in the process of decay.
I first visited the Dunbar State Memorial in 2002 during the restoration period, twice in 2013 and then on June 26, 2015 to get some fresh photos for this blog entry and to double check some information. There have been some changes since my visits in 2013. At that time, the house was managed for Ohio History Connection by Dayton History, an agency within Montgomery County devoted to local history and historical preservation. Dayton History manages a number of the historical sites within the Aviation Heritage National Park. However, this agency no longer operates the Dunbar House. Day to day operations are now conducted by the National Park Service, although Dayton History still does some custodial and maintenance work at the Dunbar House site.
Admission is free. As of the date of this publication–June 27, 2015–the site is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Current information for the site is still listed on the Dayton History site. Here is that website: http://www.daytonhistory.org/destinations/paul-laurence-dunbar-house-historic-site/.
AS ALWAYS, call first to double check information if you are coming upon this entry at a later date. I always want folks to have smooth traveling!
During my last visit to the Dunbar House, I found myself reflecting on, and being grateful for, the people who had the foresight to recognize the importance of this house in the 1930s. We are the beneficiaries of their vision.
The Dunbar House is a wonderful example of a well-preserved literary site that has much to offer visitors. I think you will find it more than well worth your time to pay a visit.