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February 2007
The Poet with "God's Gift of Song"
 

    When traveling through the Dayton area, we are pass through the home of Paul Laurence Dunbar, often named as America’s first nationally-recognized African-American poet.
 
    Paul Laurence Dunbar was born in Dayton in 1872, the son of former slaves. His parents separated when Paul was a young child, and his mother, Matilda, earned a meager living by doing laundry for wealthy families. Matilda loved poetry, songs, storytelling, and literature, and she passed that passion on to her children. Inspired by her, Paul was writing his own poetry by the time he was six years old.

    At Dayton’s Central High School, he was the school’s only African American student and a friend of another Dayton Central student: Orville Wright, who later helped produce an African American newspaper that Paul wrote. In school, he continued developing his writing and became editor of the school newspaper, president of its literary society, and a member of its debating club.

    There weren’t many opportunities for young black men in Dayton, even smart literary young men, so upon graduation from high school, Paul Dunbar went to work as an elevator operator. He also continued writing, producing poems for several African-American newspapers, and self-publishing his first book, Oak and Ivy, which he sold for a dollar a copy to people who rode on his elevator.

    With this first book, he began to gather notice, and friends offered to back a second book of poetry. This volume found its way to William Dean Howells, an Ohio native who was a well-known literary critic and editor of Harper’s Weekly magazine. Howells praised the work, which helped Dunbar gain entry to the country’s most prominent literary circles. He continued to write and publish as well as give readings on tour throughout the United States and England.

    Paul Dunbar married a young writer, Alice Ruth Moore, and they settled in Washington D.C. where he worked in the Library of Congress. But he contracted tuberculosis and quit his job to devote what energy he had to writing and reciting before audiences.

    His marriage was troubled, though, and he and his wife separated. He then became plagued by depression and an increasing dependency on alcohol. Paul Dunbar moved back to Dayton to live with his mother, where he died in 1906 at the age of 33. Yet, he left behind a sizeable body of work: 12 books of poetry as well as several books of short stories, five novels, a play, and numerous magazine articles. And also the power of his example for African Americans and other minorities with dreams to tell their own stories and sing their own songs.

    Oh, by the way, if you’d like to buy one of the original copies of Oak and Ivy, the book Paul Dunbar sold for a dollar to patrons of his elevator, today it’ll cost you about $10,000.

    We conclude this section with words from a plaque on the home of Paul Laurence Dunbar in Dayton, now a state historic site.

Because I had loved so deeply,
Because I had loved so long,
God in his great compassion
Gave me a gift of song

 


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