Paul Laurence Dunbar is one of the most prominent and well-known Ohio authors. He remains significant for his accomplishments in both formal and dialect verse, and is a towering presence in the history of African-American writing. Although best known for his poetry, Dunbar also wrote novels, short stories, libretti, and plays.
Paul Laurence Dunbar was born on June 27, 1872 in Dayton, Ohio. His parents, Joshua and Matilda Dunbar, were both former slaves in Kentucky. Joshua, who was later divorced from Matilda, had escaped to Canada while still a slave and later returned to the United States to serve in the Union army during the Civil War. While Dunbar admired the military legacy of his father, reflected in such poems as “Our Martyred Soldiers,” it was his mother Matilda who encouraged her son and worked long hours as a domestic to give Paul and his siblings a chance in life. She especially nurtured Paul’s interest in reading.
Dunbar grew up in Dayton and graduated high school there, a significant accomplishment for any person in the late nineteenth century, but especially so for a young black man in a country where education opportunities were limited for African-Americans. His classmates at Central High School included his good friends the Wright brothers. Paul was an outstanding student who edited the school newspaper and was president of the school literary society during his senior year.
However, Dunbar found that the opportunities that seemed so prevalent during his school days faded upon graduation. Paul eventually took a job as an elevator operator at the Callahan Building while continuing to contribute poems and stories to local newspapers.
His first big break occurred when Dr. James Newton Matthews invited Dunbar to read a poem before the Western Association of Writers held in Dayton in 1892. Dunbar then self-published his book of poems Oak and Ivy and began giving readings in Dayton and elsewhere. During the next several years Dunbar met other major writers and influential public figures, such as Frederick Douglass, and began placing work in national magazines. In 1896 Dunbar published Majors and Minors, which received an influential review from prominent novelist, editor and man of letters William Dean Howells in Harper’s Weekly (Howells is also an Ohioan and will be featured in future posts). Later that year Dunbar also published Lyrics of Lowly Life.
William Dean Howells
By now Dunbar was becoming known to the public as an important young poet and writer. The following years would be a whirlwind of creative work, which soon included collaborations with composers, readings and travel, including a stay in England. He marched in both of President McKinley’s inaugural parades. In 1898 he married writer and teacher Ruth Moore, but a year later discovered he had tuberculosis. One treatment for the disease at the time was drinking alcohol, especially strong spirits like whisky, and Dunbar eventually became an alcoholic. Dunbar’s marriage was not a happy one, and he and Ruth Moore permanently separated in 1902. During this same year Dunbar returned home to live in Dayton at the house at 219 Summit Street (now Paul Dunbar Street) that he purchased for his mother.
Dunbar valiantly continued to write despite his ill health, and marched again in an inaugural parade, this one for President Theodore Roosevelt. Dunbar died at his home in Dayton on February 9, 1906. The Life and and Works of Paul Laurence Dunbar was published in 1907, and Dodd, Mead brought out a Complete Poems in 1913. Dunbar’s mother Matilda continued to live in the home until her death in the 1930’s, and on June 27, 1938, the Paul Dunbar house was dedicated by the state as an Ohio landmark.