Paul Laurence Dunbar

A SONG is but a little thing,

And yet what joy it is to sing!

Dubbed by James Weldon Johnson "the first American Negro poet of real literary distinction," Paul Laurence Dunbar was born on June 27, 1872. His father, Joshua Dunbar, was a former slave who had escaped to Canada. Paul Dunbar grew up and attended high school in Dayton, Ohio, in the same class as Wilbur and Orville Wright.

After his father left, Dunbar's mother, Matilda, went to work as a washerwoman for the Wright family. Not only did Matilda teach her four children to read, she nurtured in them a love of poetry and language through singing and telling stories. Encouraged by this, Paul Dunbar began writing poems around the time he was six years old.

Although he was a gifted writer, Dunbar had trouble finding a job because of his race, and his first book, Oak and Ivy, was all but ignored. With financial help from his old schoolmates, the Wright brothers, Dunbar was able to publish Dayton's first African-American newsletter, the Dayton Tattler.

Dunbar also worked for awhile as an elevator operator before his big break came. In 1893 he recited poetry at the World's Fair where he met Frederick Douglass, who called him one of America's most promising young writers. His poetry collection, Majors and Minors, was published in 1895 and reviewed by the renowned author and critic, William Dean Howells, in Harper's Weekly. After this, he established himself as a major literary figure alongside Indiana poet James Whitcomb Riley.

In 1898, Dunbar married writer Alice Ruth Moore with whom he had been corresponding for many years. He continued to write short stories, poems, articles and dramatic sketches up until his death at age 33, in 1906.

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Last edited 1/6/2017 7:41:54 PM

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Extra Info

In November, 1999, the DeCapo Foundation created the Wright-Dunbar Award for youth who work for peace and tolerance around the world. Several children from around the world were honored at a ceremony held at the United Nations. You can read about some of the children who received the Wright-Dunbar Award on MY HERO.

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Author Info

Paul Laurence Dunbar is a hero because of his superb work in African-American letters. He is one of the foremost poets in America, and he went to school with the Wright Brothers. They had a printing firm at one point when they were students, and Dunbar used to have them print some of his poems. It was a wonderful relationship. They lived in the same neighborhood, and we in fact have memorialized that relationship by naming one of our communities Wright-Dunbar and really working on a revitalization in that community to coincide with the centennial of powered flight. They are both wonderful heroes and prime examples of what life was like at the turn of the century in Dayton, Ohio.

Bing Davis, an artist/educator who makes his home in Dayton pretty close to the Dunbar neighborhood, spoke of Dunbar:

"Ever since I was a young child I had heard about Dunbar and his work and, as a teenager, I would visit his house often and read his work and recite his poems, and he became an inspiration to me."

We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!

--Paul Laurence Dunbar
from the poem, We Wear the Mask