JUST IN:

1 killed after head-on crash in Moraine

Dunbar’s prose a treasured legacy

First acclaimed African-American writer


The son of former slaves, Dayton-born Paul Laurence Dunbar was one of the first nationally-known African-American writers.

Dunbar’s father, Joshua, escaped slavery and enlisted to serve in the Union Army before settling in Dayton. His mother, Matilda, was born a slave in Fayette County, Kentucky, but despite being illiterate instilled a love for language in her son.

As a child, Matilda would surreptitiously pull up a box for a seat on her master’s veranda and listen to him tell stories to his own children according to LaVerne Sci, a Dunbar scholar who served as the Dunbar House site manager for 20 years.

Though Dunbar was the first child born into freedom for Matilda, his parents’ experiences as slaves influenced his writing. “The world saw them as chattel,” said Sci. “Paul saw his generation as being a part of humanity. He was the first person in literature to provide the suggestion of the humanity of the black man.”

At age six Dunbar wrote his first poem, “An Easter Ode.” Six years later he recited that poem to the congregation of Eaker Street A.M.E. Church in Dayton, his first known public reading.

Lack of work and a growing problem with alcoholism led to divorce for Dunbar’s parents. Joshua died in 1885 when his son was 13.

Dunbar’s two older brothers dropped out of school to help support the family, but Matilda, who had a special bond with her youngest son who was a frail child, made sure Paul was educated.

Dunbar attended the Tenth Street Elementary School and then went on to attend Central High School, where he edited the Dayton Tattler, an African-American newspaper published by his classmate Orville Wright.

During high school his first published work “Our Martyred Soldiers,” a poem about Memorial Day, appeared in the pages of the Dayton Herald.

After high school Dunbar found career prospects limited for an African-American man. His first, briefly held job was as a janitor at NCR, but he wasn’t strong enough to lift things, according to Sci.

Then he found work as an elevator operator in the Callahan Building where he scribbled down bits of poetry between calls and studied the dialects of the riders. That work eventually led to his first self-published book, “Oak and Ivy,” which he sold for $1 to the people who rode his elevator.

“Majors and Minors,” his second book of poetry was published in 1896 and transported him to national acclaim. He toured the United States giving public readings and in 1897 sailed to London where he traveled in English literary circles.

Dunbar used his mastery of words to court Alice Ruth Moore, a literary figure in her own right, and the couple eloped in 1898.

Dunbar’s chronic health problems worsened. Diagnosed with tuberculosis, he sought relief through alcohol. Alice Ruth Moore left him in 1902.

The last three years of his life, Dunbar kept writing while his mother cared for him. He died Feb. 9, 1906, at age 33, and was buried in Woodland Cemetery. 

“Dunbar wrote with Dayton as his solid foundation and as his reference,” Sci said. “It was in Dayton that he found his richest and greatest experiences and all the elements of beauty and joy that he enjoyed.”

2018 TRIBUTE:

The annual graveside tribute to Paul Laurence Dunbar will be held Friday, Feb. 9, at Dayton’s historic Woodland Cemetery and Arboretum

The procession will gather at the Woodland Mausoleum at 9:45 a.m. prior to being led to Dunbar’s grave site. 

Participants will join in a tribute to the poet and lay a wreath at his grave. A reception will be held afterward. 



Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Local

Firing range shootings: Fatality, police officer among 4 Ohio cases
Firing range shootings: Fatality, police officer among 4 Ohio cases

An accidental shooting at a Miami Twp. armory occurred Friday, the owner said, when a military veteran’s gun discharged as he was holstering it. The man - described a local, frequent customer of the Miami Armory – was wounded in the buttocks as he was seeking to secure the semi-automatic weapon, according to armory owner David Becker. RELATED...
Fatal shooting investigation underway in Springfield
Fatal shooting investigation underway in Springfield

Springfield police said a man who died in a Springfield shooting early Monday morning was shot and killed while he was in his car. Springfield police are investigating a fatal shooting on South Yellow Springs Street. The coroner is on scene. Police have a crime scene taped off on South Yellow Springs Street in Springfield. The scene is reportedly between...
Urbana chief: Level of violence ‘troubling’ in city
Urbana chief: Level of violence ‘troubling’ in city

Champaign County had some high profile cases last year — including a school shooting and a teen murder suspect who’s claimed multiple personalities — but overall violent crime rates remained largely flat. Urbana Police Chief Matt Lingrell said he’s concerned about the amount of crime in the city, even though the statistics don&rsquo...
So you wanna be a figure skater? Start your Olympic dreams here
So you wanna be a figure skater? Start your Olympic dreams here

Hagerstown, Tokyo, Beavercreek – as long as there was an ice rink nearby, it was home sweet home for Cindi Sonntag. “Physically, it’s helped me build muscle – core muscle and leg muscle – but it’s more than that,” Sonntag said. “When I skate, I feel joy.” With the Olympics underway, the grace and...
What’s next for documentary about famous Dayton band?
What’s next for documentary about famous Dayton band?

In 2017, former Daytonian Eric Mahoney started work on his passion project, a documentary on Brainiac. The film explores the beloved Dayton band’s short but powerful career, which was derailed with frontman Tim Taylor’s death in a car accident in May 1997. Mahoney is financing the documentary himself along with support from crowdfunding...
More Stories