Dayton Honors Poet Paul Laurence Dunbar

The city of Dayton is marking the 100th anniversary of the death of one of its native sons. Poet and author Paul Laurence Dunbar died of tuberculosis on February 9th, 1906. Befriended by the Wright Brothers and known across the U.S., Dunbar passed away at the age of 33. WOSU’s Sam Hendren reports.

It was a rainy day late last week at the Dunbar State Historic Site near downtown Dayton. But the gloomy weather could not dampen the enthusiasm of the women attending a volunteer’s meeting at the visitor’s center.

“We love Dunbar. And we don’t do it for pay. We volunteer because we love Dunbar. And we want to continue this legacy for as long as possible,” says volunteer Lucille Morrow.

Paul Laurence Dunbar was the first African American to earn a living as an author. According to University of Dayton English professor and Dunbar scholar Herbert Martin Dunbar’s prolific literary career only spanned a little more than a decade.

“He wrote 12 books of poetry, four books of short stories, four novels, lots of essays which appeared in all sorts of journals. And that was for somebody who becomes professional at 18 or 19 and is dead at 33. A pretty substantial output,” says Martin.

Dunbar was the son of former slaves who graduated from high school in 1891. The only job he could find was operating an elevator. He went into debt to publish his first book of poems in 1893. He became an overnight success three years later when literary critic William Dean Howells praised his work in Harper’s Weekly.

Though he’s better known for his poems written in Standard English, Dunbar often wrote in dialect. Dunbar’s poetry at times walks a fine line between humor and seriousness according to Martin, who says the poet’s work is filed with irony and coded language.

“He says in a poem, I’m talkin’ ’bout ouah freedom In a Bibleistic way. Now don’t run an’ tell yo’ mastahs Dat I’s preachin’ discontent. ‘Cause I isn’t; I’se a-judgin’ Bible people by deir ac’s; I’se a-givin’ you de Scriptuah, I’se a-handin’ you de fac’s. Well he’s really talking about freedom. But he says, ‘I’m hiding behind the Bible because nobody’s going to argue with the Bible, everybody accepts it.’ So you sort of laugh at that and then you think, ‘Wow, he really is talking about freedom!’

Dunbar’s dialect poetry endeared him to Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and W.E.B. Du Bois. Maya Angelou chose a phrase from the Dunbar poem Sympathy as the title for her autobiographical volume “I know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” Herbert Martin says Dunbar’s success meant he could move freely in the literary world which was less bound by race. But he still was constrained by an unhappy marriage and worsening tuberculosis. LaVerne Sci manages the Dunbar state historic site.

“Paul was caged in his career. The world wanted to call him a black writer and not necessarily a good writer and he did not get his just due. And he felt caged in his love life; he was caged in his body. However he knew ultimately that he only had the cage of a grave to look forward to. And that’s why he knew why the caged bird sings,” says Sci.

Dunbar spent six months in London giving public performances; he worked for a year at the Library of Congress; and he spent time in Colorado attempting to recover his health. In late 1902 he bought a comfortable two-story brick home in Dayton for himself and his mother. On February 9th, 1906, he died from tuberculosis. He’s buried under a willow in Dayton’s Woodland Cemetery a few yards from his friends, Wilbur and Orville Wight his epitaph was taken from one of his poems.

Lay me down beneaf de willers in de grass, Whah de branch’ll go a-singin’ as it pass. An’ w’en I’s a-layin’ low, I kin hyeah it as it go Singin’, “Sleep, my honey, tek yo’ res’ at las’”.

On Thursday Dunbar devotees will gather at his grave overlooking Dayton. Dunbar volunteer Lucille Morrow:

You see, every year we go to the grave site and I just feel that closeness when I’m on that hill. And you know the weather’s always so bad but we’re just glad to be there. Just to dedicate our service and time to his memory,” Morrow says.

A complete list of events honoring Paul Laurence Dunbar including the graveside observance is available at www.celebratedunbar.org. Sam Hendren, WOSU News.

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