In the three decades after the Civil War, Dayton, Ohio was still something of an overgrown country town, perched uncertainly between its agrarian-marketing past and its industrial future. Its 40,000 or so inhabitants were still predominantly white and native-born, but a small African-American community had grown and matured in Dayton. Matilda J. Murphey, born a slave in Kentucky, was living in Dayton after the war as a widow with two young sons, William and Robert. In 1871 she married Joshua Dunbar, then 55 years old, who had escaped slavery via the Underground Railroad, lived in Canada for awhile, and then returned to the United States when the Civil War began and served in the famous 55th Massachusetts regiment of black soldiers. Joshua had settled in Dayton after the war, working as a plasterer. Their son Paul Laurence was born on June 24, 1872. His sister Elizabeth was born the following year but died in infancy.
Dunbar's Youth and Education
After Joshua and Matilda were divorced in 1876, ending a marriage that failed in part because of the 30-year difference in their ages, Paul and his mother lived in a small house on Howard Street in a racially mixed neighborhood on Dayton's West Side. Matilda earned her living as a washerwoman, while Paul began to attend school, at first in a district school for blacks only but later in predominantly white classrooms. His older half-brothers lived nearby, and his father resided at the Dayton Soldier's Home until his death in 1885; but Paul was the one closest to his mother, a relationship that would continue to be important to him until his untimely death at the age of 33. While a student at Central High School he became friends with two young brothers who lived nearby - Orville and Wilbur Wright. With Orville's help as the printer, Dunbar edited a newspaper for black readers, The Dayton Tattler, in 1890, but gave it up after just three issues as uneconomical. But this revealed quite early on Dunbar's literary talents and ambitions, as did his activities at Central High, where he edited the school paper.
Early Career as a Writer
After graduation in 1891, Paul Laurence Dunbar immediately experienced the bitter reality of racism in the most direct way. Barred from any kind of work for which his education and character entitled him, including positions with any of the Dayton newspapers, he was forced to take a job as the elevator boy in a downtown office building. He refused to surrender his ambitions, though, and continued to write poems and stories for publication. A former teacher and a few other white Daytonians who knew of his talent encouraged him, and in 1892 he was invited to read one of his poems at a meeting of the Western Association of Writers in Dayton. Word began to spread about this talented young black writer, and later that same year the United Brethren publishing house in Dayton published his first collection of poetry, Oak and Ivy.
Over the next few years Dunbar's fame began to spread among leading authors and professionals, both black and white. He met the great African-American leader Frederick Douglass at the World's Columbian Expedition in Chicago in 1893 and impressed him favorably. In 1896 Dunbar's new collection of poems, Majors and Minors, received the critical acclaim of the novelist William Dean Howells in "Harper's Weekly", probably the greatest recognition any young author, black or white, could have received in the literary world of that time. While continuing to write poetry, both in standard literary form and in "Negro dialect," Dunbar also began to venture into other genres. His total output, one of the largest of any African-American author, included over 400 poems, four collected volumes of short stories and numerous other uncollected ones, four novels, and various essays for newspapers and magazines, and lyrics and libretti for theater productions.
Some have concluded, especially based on his "Negro dialect" poetry, that Dunbar was a "racial conciliationist" who favored Booker T. Washington's approach of acceptance of segregation and inequality and only vague hopes for future progress. Such a view is very wide of the truth. While primarily a literary artist of consummate skill, Dunbar felt deep anger at racial injustice and was eager to see African Americans exercise their rights of citizenship. See, for example, an essay entitled "Recession Never" that was written in 1898 in response to several recent race riots against blacks. McClure's Magazine refused to publish it because Dunbar would not "tone it down," but it appeared in several newspapers, including The Toledo Journal of December 18, 1898.
Despite this recognition by the literary world, Dunbar's personal life was marked by incessant struggle. To supplement the limited and uncertain income from writing, he obtained a position at the Library of Congress in Washington in 1897, but had to give it up because the dusty atmosphere of the library stacks worsened his physical condition of tuberculosis.
A Stressful Life Cut Short
In 1898 he married Alice Ruth Moore, a gifted teacher and writer in her own right, but they finally separated in 1902. Their difficulties stemmed in part from his problems with alcohol addiction, brought on ironically because of the belief that alcohol would relieve the tuberculosis symptoms. Dunbar traveled to placed like Colorado and the Catskills in search of a healthier climate, but to no lasting avail. After his separation from Alice he lived for a time in Chicago, but then returned to Dayton to live with his mother in the house he had purchased for her, at 219 North Summit Street, now the Paul Laurence Dunbar State Memorial. There he died on February 9, 1906, and was buried in Dayton's Woodland Cemetery. A tribute to him written by Charlotte Reeve Conover, published in 1907, reveals the respect that many of Dayton's prominent white residents had for Dunbar in his lifetime. It also, however, suggests that differences of race and social condition kept them from fully understanding the man that Dayton has ever since honored as its own "poet laureate."