Paul Laurence Dunbar was born in Dayton, Ohio in June of 1872. His parents, Joshua and Matilda, were former slaves in Kentucky during the Civil War. Dunbar’s mother had moved to Dayton along with her two sons from her first marriage. There she met Dunbar’s father who had escaped from slavery before the end of the war. He served in the 55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment. It was one of only two black units in the war. He also went on to serve in the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry Regiment.
Dunbar’s parents did not have a happy marriage. There was great unhappiness that came to a head after the birth of their second child. Joshua Dunbar died in 1885 when Paul Dunbar was only 12 years old. It is known that Dunbar wrote his first poems when he was only six years old. He was reading them aloud by the time he was nine. Matilda Dunbar cared deeply for her son’s education. She took the time to teach him how to read, hoping he’d become a minister.
As a young man, Dunbar was the only African-American student in his high school class of 1890. He attended Central High School in Dayton. It was here that Dunbar first developed a love for writing as he worked editing the school newspaper and participating in literary societies.
When he was sixteen years old he published two poems, ‘Our Martyred Soldiers’ and ‘One the River’ in The Herald. Two years later he was writing for The Tattler.
After high school, Dunbar did not have enough money to attend college or secure the law career he was hoping for. He eventually got a position as an elevator operator in Dayton. He was kept from a number of other professions due to his race. Dunbar’s free time was spent writing. Eventually, a speaking opportunity at the Wester Association of Writer in Dayton culminated with Dunbar publishing his first collection of poetry, Oak and Ivy, in 1893. This work was traditional in its verse form but written in dialect.
It was clear from this first publication that Dunbar was a talented poet. He was recognized by the attorney Charles A. Thatcher who offered to pay for Dunbar’s college. He chose instead to persist purely in his writing career.
Positive reviews and endorsements from civil rights leaders such as Frederick Douglass brought Dunbar some fame. He spent time touring the United States and Great Britain reading his poetry aloud. His second and third collections, Majors and Minors and Lyrics of Lowly Life were published in 1896. The latter established Dunbar as the foremost African-American poet in America. While in England he was able to find a publisher for a British edition of Lyrics of Lowly Life. He also became friends with musician Samuel Coleridge-Taylor with whom he collaborated on an opera.
Unfortunately, as Dunbar’s success grew, so too did his health and financial problems. Dunbar was known to handle his money recklessly and was not able to support himself and his mother. In 1898 Dunbar married fellow writer Alice Ruth Monroe. It was this same year that he published his first collection of short stories, Folks from Dixie. This work focused on the examination of racial prejudice and was received well.
The couple moved to Washington, D.C. where Dunbar had taken a job at the library of Congress. They lived in a comfortable neighborhood but Dunbar soon left his job to refocus on his writing. In 1900 Dunbar’s health was failing. He was diagnosed with tuberculosis, a disease that was mostly fatal at this time. Dunbar’s doctors recommended he drink whiskey and move to Colorado to help his symptoms.
Later Life and Death
The diagnosis sent Dunbar into a tailspin. He developed a drinking problem and Alice eventually broke off contact with him after he had abused her continuously for three years. He moved back to Dayton in 1904 to be with his mother. The last years of his life were spent writing all manner of works from his mother’s home. It was there that he passed away in February of 1906 at only thirty-three. He was interred in the Woodland Cemetery in Dayton.
Today, Paul Lawrence Dunbar is considered one of the most important writers of the early 20th century and his legacy continues to influence Modern American literature.