On this day in Black History we celebrate the life of great American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. Dunbar is one of the first African Americans to gain national recognition for using the imagery of plantation life as a main source of inspiration in his work, although he was born a free man.
Dunbar was born on June 27, 1872 to Joshua and Matilda Murphy Dunbar, freed slaves from Kentucky. At a young age, the Dunbars split up and he went on to live with his mother. By the age of 14, Dunbar had poetry published in the Dayton Herald, a local Ohio new publication. While in high school Dunbar worked as an editor of the Dayton Tattler, an independent Black newspaper founded by his classmate Orville Wright.
Dunbar was never allotted the opportunity to attend college and had to take a job as an elevator operator. In 1892, an old teacher of his gave him the opportunity to speak at a meeting of the Western Association of Writers. There he read poetry of his and impressed popular poet James Whitcomb Riley so much he wrote the young Dunbar a letter of encouragement.
In 1893 Dunbar self-published a collection of his work entitled Oak and Ivy. He paid for the publishing cost by selling his work for one dollar to patrons of his elevator. Later that year he quit his elevator operating job and moved to Chicago hoping to find work at the first World’s Fair. There he befriended Fredrick Douglass, who found him a job as a clerk and arranged it for him to read his poetry for people passing by. Douglass has been quoted saying Dunbar was “the most promising young colored man in America.”
By 1895, Dunbar’s poetry began to circulate nationally. He began to receive placement in major national publications like The New York Times. He published a second collection, Majors and Minors, in 1895. The book was comprised of poems written in standard English,”majors,” and poems written in dialect called, “minors.” It was this style of dialectic writing that brought Dunbar international attention.
In 1897, due to the success of his second collection, Dunbar was asked to go on a six-month reading tour in England. On this tour he debuted a new collection titled Lyrics of Lowly Life.
When he returned to the States, Dunbar was awarded a clerkship at the Library of Congress. That same year he married writer Alice Ruth Moore. While living in Washington D.C., Dunbar published a short story collection titled Folks from Dixie, a novel entitled The Uncanny and two more poetry volumes: Lyrics of the Hearthside and Poems of Cabin and Field.
In 1898, Dunbar’s health began to quickly deteriorate. It is believed the dust from the Library of Congress contributed to his tuberculosis. Because of this, he left his job and focused on writing full time and gave occasional readings of his work. Over the next five years Dunbar wrote three more novels and three short story collections.
In 1902 Dunbar separated from his wife and shortly after suffered a nervous breakdown and pneumonia. Although he was suffering from illness he continued to write. His collections of this time include Lyrics of Love and Laughter, Howdy, Howdy, Howdy and Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow. These three books confirmed Dunbar’s place that the premier black poet in the world.
Due to the deterioration of his health, Paul Laurence Dunbar passed away on February 9, 1906 at the young age of 33. His work is continuously celebrated and regarded as some of the best poetry in American history. Today we remember his legacy.