Born: June 27, 1872
Died: February 9, 1906
Ohio connection: Birth
The first important Black poet in American literature, Paul Laurence Dunbar was born to former slaves in Dayton on June 27, 1872. He showed literary promise in high school where, the only Black in his class, he became class president, editor in chief of the High School Times, class poet, and composer of the class song. Several of his poems appeared in the Dayton Herald as early as 1888 and, before graduating, he founded the Dayton Tattler, a newspaper for Blacks printed by his friend and classmate Orville Wright. Dunbar aspired to study law at Harvard University, but his widowed mother could not afford college tuition. He sought employment at Dayton newspapers and other businesses only to be rejected because of his color. He settled for work as an elevator operator, a job conducive to writing.
Dunbar’s first collection of poems, Oak and Ivy, was published in 1893. Both it and his next work, Majors and Minors (1896), feature poems written in both in Black dialect and in standard English. Although the dialect poems found the most favor with Dunbar’s predominantly white readers and brought him increasing fame, they make up only a small portion of Dunbar’s work which consists of novels, short stories, and essays. Lyrics of Lowly Life (1896) became a best-selling book, introducing Dunbar to a national audience and enabling him to devote himself completely to literature.
In 1897, Dunbar became engaged to writer Alice Ruth Moore, with whom he had been corresponding since 1895. After a reading tour in England, Dunbar took a position as a reading room assistant at the Library of Congress and was able to marry Alice in March 1898. Although the marriage was rocky, and his health was failing, Dunbar continued to write novels, short stories, and verse. His most ambitious and most successful collection, The Strength of Gideon and Other Stories (1900), is from this period.
Dunbar and his wife separated in 1902, his illness worsened and was exacerbated by alcohol abuse, and he died of tuberculosis on February 9, 1906 at the age of 33.
The Dunbar home at 219 North Summit Street in Dayton is maintained as a state memorial, while the Ohio Historical Society in Columbus holds the major collection of his manuscripts, papers, and correspondence. In the decades following his death, Dunbar’s reputation faltered as scholars questioned his apparent caricaturing of his own race. Recently, Dunbar’s standing has increased with scholars, and his standard English poems are regarded as his greatest achievement, constituting both a history and a celebration of Black life.