As early as age six, Paul Laurence Dunbar knew he wanted to write poetry and he used his gift to express the reality of unequal treatment of blacks in America.
From the time of his birth in Dayton, Ohio on June 27, 1872, he was determined not to let his economic trials and hardships stop him from fulfilling his calling.
Dunbar’s parents, Matilda, a former slave and Joshua, who escaped from slavery and served in the 55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment in the Civil War, separated in 1874.
As a single-mother, Matilda worked as a washerwoman for various families, and encouraged literacy through songs, storytelling and reading. The only black person at Dayton Central High, Dunbar was not deterred from his extracurricular endeavors.
He was the editor of the school paper, president of the school’s literary society and a member of the debating society. Although finding employment was initially difficult because he was black, he wrote for Dayton community newspapers.
He published the Dayton Tattler, an African-American newsletter. On his birthday in 1892, Dunbar gave his first public reading, which was a welcoming address to the Western Association of Writers. That same year, Dunbar published “Oak and Ivy,” his first collection of poetry.
He kept his elevator operator job to pay publishing debts, but sold his book to elevator riders for $1. His reputation was rapidly spreading and in 1893, his popularity reached a new level. Dunbar was invited to recite at the World’s Fair. There he met Frederick Douglass, who called Dunbar “the most promising young colored man in America.”
In 1895, Dunbar moved to Toledo, Ohio, where he recited works in libraries and numerous literary gatherings. Charles A. Thatcher, an attorney, and Henry A. Tobey, a psychiatrist, were both fans of Dunbar’s work and funded his second book called “Majors and Minors.” This book made him nationally renowned.
Dunbar worked at the Library of Congress in Washington, but his case of tuberculosis was slowly getting worse. After a year, he quit to focus on writing and reciting poetry full time.
Although events, such as the separation between Dunbar and his wife in I902, further affected his state of health, he still wrote. Altogether, Dunbar wrote 12 poetry books, 4 books of short stories, five novels and a play.
Dunbar’s achievements and passion for the pen propelled him to be the first black poet to receive national critical acclaim, and although he died at 33, it is evident that his words have definitely left their mark.
Compiled by Russell Nichlos