10 things you probably don't know about Paul Laurence Dunbar

Amelia Robinson, Staff Writer

In these parts, we are pretty familiar with Paul Laurence Dunbar’s name.

More than 560 students attend Dayton’s Paul Laurence Dunbar Early College High School.

And we aren’t the only ones who think we know the Dayton-born poet, novelist and playwright.

At one count, nearly 60 high schools around the nation carried the Dunbar name, as did three communities, a theater and other institutions.

“He was the first African-American to be accepted by the discipline of American literature when most people thought that most African-Americans would not have anything to write about,” said LaVerne Sci, a nationally respected Dunbar expert and retired site manager of the Paul Laurence Dunbar House Historic Site at 219 North Paul Laurence Dunbar St. “Dunbar’s name is synonymous with hard work and hope.”

The house - closed for repairs to its visitors center until later this month — is in the National Park Service’s Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park. Owned by the state, it is operated by the Ohio History Connection and managed locally by Dayton History.

Surely you have heard the name, but how much do you really know about Paul Laurence Dunbar?

We asked Sci and Lisa Wood, a Ohio History Connection curator for visual resources and history services unit manager, to share little-known facts about the celebrated figure who died of tuberculosis at age 33 on Feb. 9, 1906.


  • 1. Good Teachers

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    Dunbar was the only black student in his graduating class at Central High School in Dayton. (Airplane co-inventor Orville Wright was a classmate.)

    Sci said teachers recognized Dunbar’s talents and pushed him to pursue his passion for writing. He edited his school’s newspaper and was president of its literary society.

    Despite a high school diploma — a rarity at the time for either blacks or whites — the only work Dunbar could get was as an elevator operator for the Callahan Building in downtown. He wrote whenever he could, and seized the opportunity when a former teacher invited him to speak at the Western Association of Writers, which happened to be held in town.

    Photo courtesy of Ohio History Connection.

  • 2. Back to Work

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    Paul gave a remarkable presentation at the Western Association of Writers, then went back to work at the Callahan Building.

    It was an important leap forward for the the writer known as the “elevator boy poet.” Some attendees followed him back to his post. Sci said it happened because a teacher helped.

    “I see that as a tremendous metaphor for Dayton today in term of race relations and cooperation between the communities and encouragement of pupils regardless of racial designation,” she said. “Had it not been for his teachers, he could not have been introduced. His community did not have the vehicle for him to thoroughly display his abilities.”

    Photo courtesy of Ohio History Connection.

  • 3. Embraced at Home First

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    It is widely known that a white critic William Dean Howells and black social reformer and orator Frederick Douglass helped propel Dunbar’s career, but he started gaining traction in Dayton.

    Dunbar, who sold his work at the elevator, had a number of champions and supporters in Dayton, including Charlotte Reeve Conover, a writer and society woman whose attorney husband worked in the Callahan Building.

    “He did become recognized in Dayton by Daytonians who used their talents and their resources to help elevate him in his career,” Sci said.

    Photo courtesy of Ohio History Connection.

  • 4. 13 years

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    Wood said that one of the most incredible things about Dunbar’s story is that he did so much is so little time.

    He traveled the world, even meeting the Queen of England, and wrote prolifically. During a career that spanned just 13 years, he penned about 400 poems in addition to lyrics, novels and short stories.

    Sci counts “The Sport of the Gods” as her favorite novel by Dunbar. She said it speaks to the African-American experience.

    Photo courtesy of Ohio History Connection.

  • 5. Southern Speak

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    Dunbar came along as America was “looking back to the good old days” through a list of writers that include Mark Twain, Sci said.

    While some wrote in southern dialect to mock blacks, Wood said Dunbar, the son of two former Kentucky slaves, did it as social commentary.

    “He is clearly making fun of white politicians and saying things he might not have gotten away with if he wrote in standard English,” she said.

    Although remembered mostly for his use of southern dialect, much of his work was in conventional English.

    “He was hoping he would get more popular acclaim for the works written in standard English,” Wood said. “He was really that tortured artist type. The racism at the time really took a toll on him and at times I think he was frustrated by it.”

    Photo courtesy of Ohio History Connection.

  • 6. A Marriage on the Rocks

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    Sick with tuberculosis, Dunbar purchased the house on Dunbar — then Summit Street — for his mother in 1904 after splitting from his wife, the writer Alice Dunbar Nelson.

    The marriage was rocky to say the least, Wood says.

    “It wasn’t considered highly respectable to hit your wife, but it wasn’t illegal,” Wood said. “There was no concept of domestic or marital rape, but it wasn’t uncommon.”

    The Dunbars were together only four years, but never divorced.

    Wood said Paul Dunbar was a very complicated person. At one point his wife said he could be the most charming man on Earth, the next they could have horrendous fights.

    The split was final.

    “His wife never visited him at his home in Dayton,” Woods said. “They had very, very little contact after they separated — it was a very tumultuous relation.”


  • 7. Tortured Soul

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    Despite his many successes, Wood said Paul clearly struggled in life. He suffered from depression and alcoholism.

    “The success was somewhat hard-won and his career didn’t always go the way he had wanted,” she said. “He probably hoped his novels would do better in standard English. His success was good, but he wasn’t always satisfied with it.”

    Photo courtesy of Ohio History Connection.

  • 8. The Toast of Washington

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    Before they separated, the Dunbars lived in Washington D.C., where Paul worked for a time as a clerk for the Library of Congress.

    Sci said they became part of the scene there, and many Washingtonians still claim him as one of their own.

    “I have people argue with me that Dunbar ‘belongs’ to them,” Sci said. “They felt like Dunbar was their local celebrity, and I find it interesting that people in Dayton don’t realize how beloved he is in other geographical areas.

    This photo features 10c Paul Laurence Dunbar imperforate stamps from 1975. They will be on display in the Freedom Just Around the Corner: Black America from Civil War to Civil Rights exhibit that will open on Feb. 12, 2015 at the National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C. 

    Photo courtesy of The National Postal Museum.

  • 9. A Mother's Love

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    Born June 27, 1872 to former slaves Matilda and Joshua Dunbar, Paul grew up in proverty.

    He was the youngest of Matilda’s three surviving children. His sister died in childhood and is buried near him at Woodland Cemetery. Paul’s parents divorced and his two older half brothers eventually settled in Chicago and had families of their own.

    Paul was the apple of his mother’s eyes and often traveled with him.

    The house on Summit Street - now Dunbar - was a big deal.

    “Mother Dunbar felt rich when she moved in the Dunbar mansion,” Sci said.

    Photo courtesy of Ohio History Connection.

  • 10. In his Mother's Arms

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    Paul L. Dunbar breathed his last breath in his mother’s arms while reciting the 23th Psalms on a daybed moved to the house’s parlor, Sci said.

    Doctors, neighbors and his secretary witnessed the death.

    “He died on the word death,” Sci said.

    (Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death..)

    Matilda kept the house and her son’s records much as it was while her son was alive, opening to the public on his birthday.

    The state of Ohio purchased the house shortly after Matilda’s death in 1936. It was the first state memorial to an African-American in the nation.

    Photo courtesy of Ohio History Connection.

    Contact this blogger at amelia.robinson@coxinc.com or Twitter.com/DDNSmartMouth