Paul L. Dunbar

From Ohio History Central
Dunbar, Paul at age 19.jpg
Poet Paul Laurence Dunbar at age 19, 1892.

Paul Laurence Dunbar was an important American poet.

Dunbar was born on June 27, 1872, in Dayton, Ohio. His parents were former slaves. Like many African-Americans in Ohio at this time, his family struggled financially. His parents separated when he was only two years old. Nevertheless, Dunbar attended Dayton public schools and graduated from high school. In high school, Dunbar was a friend of Orville and Wilbur Wright. The Wright brothers helped Dunbar build a bicycle for himself. The three men also published a newspaper together for a brief time. Dunbar served on the school's debate team, as editor of the student newspaper, and as president of the academic literary society.

Upon graduation, Dunbar found employment as an elevator operator. He received four dollars per week in salary. In his free time, he wrote poetry. During the 1890s and the first decade of the 1900s, Dunbar became recognized as one of the great poets of his day. He published his first collection of poetry, Oak and Ivy, in 1892. He continued to work as an elevator operator and personally paid for the book's publication expenses. Dunbar sold his book to elevator riders for one dollar per copy. He spent the next several years visiting reading groups and literary societies across Ohio, reading his poetry and attracting a following. In 1895, he moved to Toledo, Ohio, where he published his second collection, Majors and Minors. Critics received this work very well. The editor of Harper's Weekly gave the book an excellent review. A New York publishing company contracted with Dunbar to publish his two earlier collections as a single volume called Lyrics of a Lowly Life. It became an instant success.

In 1897, Dunbar traveled to Europe, where he visited literary societies and held readings. He returned to the United States and accepted a position with the Library of Congress. Health problems caused Dunbar to resign his position. Due to his illness and a failed marriage, Dunbar became depressed. He turned to alcohol to cope with his problems and continued to write. Dunbar authored twelve collections of poetry, five novels, one play, and a large number of newspaper articles before his death from tuberculosis on February 9, 1906.

The final home of Paul Laurence Dunbar was acquired in 1936 by the Ohio History Connection and is open to the public. It was the first state memorial in Ohio to honor an African American.

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