Who was Paul Laurence Dunbar?

Do you enjoy writing? Do you keep a journal to record your thoughts? Maybe you collaborate with your friends to write plays. If you prefer writing poetry, then you might relate to today’s subject – Paul Laurence Dunbar.

Paul Laurence Dunbar is often referred to as the poet laureate of African Americans. He was a versatile writer, known for his novels, short stories, essays, news stories, and lyrics for operas and musicals. He holds the distinction of being the first African-American man to be paid for his poetry.

Dunbar’s parents, Joshua and Matilda, were born into slavery in Kentucky. Joshua managed to escape and fled to Canada. He later returned to the United States to fight in the Civil War. Matilda, on the other hand, was freed and went to live with her mother in Dayton, Ohio. Joshua and Matilda eventually met, got married, and had two children. Paul Laurence Dunbar was born on June 27, 1872, in Dayton. Unfortunately, his parents divorced when he was still very young. Matilda raised Paul while working as a laundress for the Wright family. Interestingly, two of the Wright children, Orville and Wilbur, would go on to become famous aviation pioneers in the early 1900s.

Matilda instilled in Paul a love for reading and poetry. Despite not having received a formal education during her time in slavery, she attended night classes as an adult to improve her literacy skills. She taught Paul how to read even before he started school, and he wrote his first poem at the age of six.

Paul attended the public schools in Dayton. He was the only Black student in Central High School. During his time there, he served as the class poet, was a member of the debate group, and became the president of the school’s literary society. Additionally, he edited the school’s newspaper. With the support of his classmate Orville Wright, Dunbar published and wrote for a short-lived newspaper for the Black community called the “Dayton Tattler.”

Despite his intelligence and high school graduation, Dunbar lacked the financial means to attend college. He had hoped to study journalism or law. Due to the limited opportunities available for Black men, he took a job as an elevator operator in a Dayton office building. This job provided him with the time to write frequently.

He self-published his first book of poetry titled “Oak and Ivy.” He sold copies of his book to the people who rode the elevator with him. Dunbar wrote poetry in both standard English and dialect, with his dialect poetry becoming the most well-known.

As Dunbar embarked on his writing career, his work caught the attention of several prominent individuals who read his writings and heard him speak. Poet James Whitcomb Riley and abolitionist Frederick Douglass supported Dunbar and helped him gain exposure outside of Ohio for the first time.

Dunbar’s writings focused on the experiences of African Americans during and after the Civil War. He explored their dreams, emotions, hardships, and the racism they faced.

In 1897, Dunbar was hired as a researcher by the Library of Congress and relocated to Washington DC. However, his health began to decline during his time there. He attributed his coughing to the dust from the books in the Library.

In 1898, Dunbar married fellow writer Alice Ruth Moore. He had discovered her poetry in a magazine and wrote to her. They exchanged letters for two years before finally meeting and eloping.

Unfortunately, Paul and Alice’s marriage lasted only four years. They separated in 1902 but never officially divorced. By this time, Dunbar’s health had significantly deteriorated. Doctors diagnosed him with tuberculosis, an incurable disease. To cope with his cough, Dunbar turned to heavy drinking.

Dunbar and his mother, who resided with him and Alice, embarked on a journey to New York and Colorado for the purpose of improving his health, according to the advice of doctors. Eventually, he purchased a house in Dayton for the two of them. He passed away there on February 6, 1906. Matilda preserved Paul’s rooms in the same condition as he left them. Currently, the house serves as a museum.

Despite his young age of 33 at the time of his death, Dunbar left behind a lasting influence. Many Black poets of the Harlem Renaissance drew inspiration from Dunbar. In fact, Dunbar’s name is now associated with schools throughout the United States, serving as a source of motivation for students and their potential achievements.

Give It a Try

Are you a poet but unaware of it? Engage in these activities with a friend or family member to explore your creative side!

  • There are numerous writing strategies used in poetry, which can sometimes be perplexing. Learn more about personification, simile and metaphor, onomatopoeia, alliteration, and How to Write a Poem that Rhymes. Afterwards, apply your newfound skills to craft your own poem using one or more of these literary devices! Share your writing with a friend or family member.
  • Take a look at the selection of animal poems. Choose one or two to read. Then, contemplate your favorite animal. Can you compose a poem about them? Recite your poem to a friend or family member.
  • Read the poem “I Wonder” by Jeannie Kirby. Afterwards, reflect on the things that YOU wonder about! You may even explore wonders to gather some ideas! Finally, write a poem about your wonders. You can utilize any art supplies you have on hand or a Canva template to create an artistic presentation of your poem.

Sources of Inspiration

  • https://www.britannica.com/dictionary (accessed 21 Feb., 2023)
  • https://obxforever.org/2020/02/17/an-unlikely-friendship-paul-laurence-dunbar-and-the-wright-brothers/ (accessed 6 Oct., 2022)
  • https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/paul-laurence-dunbar (accessed 6 Oct., 2022)
  • https://www.nps.gov/people/paul-laurence-dunbar.htm (accessed 6 Oct., 2022)
  • https://www.nps.gov/daav/learn/historyculture/paullaurencedunbarslegacy.htm (accessed 6 Oct., 2022)
  • https://udayton.edu/artssciences/about/dunbar-research/about_dunbar/index.php (accessed 6 Oct., 2022)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *