1872 - 1906
Paul Laurence Dunbar, born on Howard Street in Dayton, was the first African American to be accepted into the discipline of American literature. The son of a fugitive slave, Paul was an eloquent poet, short story writer, and novelist, as well as speaker on issues of racial equality and the human condition.
At 17 Dunbar published "The Dayton Tattler," the first newspaper for Dayton's black community, with the help of his friends Orville and Wilbur Wright. He graduated from Central High School in 1891 as the only black in his class. Despite his talent and education, Dunbar found domestic service and physical labor the only types of employment available to him. He worked as an elevator operator downtown, always with pen and notebook at hand, and published poems in the Dayton Herald. In 1892, he addressed the Western Association of Writers in Dayton. The resulting standing ovation and critical praise encouraged him to self-publish Oak and Ivy
, his first collection of poems.
Dunbar spent the following summer at the World's Exposition in Chicago working for Frederick Douglass, where his eyes were opened to broader issues of the human condition. His second collection of poems, Majors and Minors
, was hailed by literary critic William Dean Howells in Harper's Weekly
and Dunbar rose to international literary prominence. Dunbar traveled in America and Europe where he developed friendships with other noted authors, including James Whitcomb Riley, W. E. B. DuBois, Booker T. Washington, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Dunbar was a staunch supporter of equality and higher education for African Americans and a rare individual who moved successfully in all social, ehtnic and economic circles.
Dunbar's life ended at 33 after a long bout with tuberculosis. He was remarkably prolific during his short career, publishing 12 books of poetry, 4 novels, 4 plays, 4 short story collections, and dozens of essays. His final years were spent on North Summit Street (now Paul Laurence Dunbar Street) in Dayton. His works are recognized today as revolutionary for the humanization of African Americans in the American culture.