Paul Laurence Dunbar
Paul Laurence Dunbar was a seminal African American
African American
African Americans are citizens or residents of the United States who have at least partial ancestry from any of the native populations of Sub-Saharan Africa and are the direct descendants of enslaved Africans within the boundaries of the present United States...

A poet is a person who writes poetry. A poet's work can be literal, meaning that his work is derived from a specific event, or metaphorical, meaning that his work can take on many meanings and forms. Poets have existed since antiquity, in nearly all languages, and have produced works that vary...

 of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Dunbar gained national recognition for his 1896 "Ode to Ethiopia
Ode to Ethiopia
"Ode to Ethiopia" is an 1896 poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar.-Summary:Dunbar presents ideas of Ethiopia as a mother, shows a pride in the African-American people, encourages hope as well as racial pride. It emphasizes a belief in a brighter future....

", one poem in the collection Lyrics of Lowly Life.

Dunbar's work is known for its colorful language and use of dialect, and a conversational tone, with a brilliant rhetorical structure. These traits were well matched to the tune-writing ability of Carrie Jacobs-Bond
Carrie Jacobs-Bond
Carrie Minetta Jacobs-Bond was an American singer, pianist, and songwriter who composed some 175 pieces of popular sheet music from the 1890s through the early 1940s....

 (1862–1946), with whom he collaborated.


Dunbar was born in Dayton, Ohio
Dayton, Ohio
Dayton is the 6th largest city in the U.S. state of Ohio and the county seat of Montgomery County, the fifth most populous county in the state. The population was 141,527 at the 2010 census. The Dayton Metropolitan Statistical Area had a population of 841,502 in the 2010 census...

 to parents who had escaped from slavery in Kentucky; his father was a veteran of the American Civil War
American Civil War
The American Civil War was a civil war fought in the United States of America. In response to the election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States, 11 southern slave states declared their secession from the United States and formed the Confederate States of America ; the other 25...

, having served in the 55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment and the 5th Massachusetts Colored Cavalry Regiment. His parents instilled in him a love of learning and history. He was the only African-American student during the years he attended Dayton's Central High School, and he participated actively as a student. During high school, he was both the editor of the school newspaper and class president, as well as the president of the school literary society. He wrote his first poem at age 6 and gave his first public recital at age 9.

Oak and Ivy

In 1890 Dunbar wrote and edited Dayton's first weekly African-American newspaper, The Tattler, printed by the fledgling company of his high school acquaintances Wilbur and Orville Wright
Wright brothers
The Wright brothers, Orville and Wilbur , were two Americans credited with inventing and building the world's first successful airplane and making the first controlled, powered and sustained heavier-than-air human flight, on December 17, 1903...

. The paper lasted only 6 weeks. In 1892 Dunbar asked the Wrights to publish his dialect poems in book form, but the brothers did not have the facility to do so. Dunbar was directed to the United Brethren
Church of the United Brethren in Christ
The Church of the United Brethren in Christ is an evangelical Christian denomination based in Huntington, Indiana. It is a Protestant denomination of episcopal structure, Arminian theology, with roots in the Mennonite and German Reformed communities of 18th century Pennsylvania, as well as close...

 Publishing House who, in 1893, printed Dunbar's first collection of poetry, Oak and Ivy.

The work attracted the attention of James Whitcomb Riley
James Whitcomb Riley
James Whitcomb Riley was an American writer, poet, and best selling author. During his lifetime he was known as the Hoosier Poet and Children's Poet for his dialect works and his children's poetry respectively...

, the popular "Hoosier Poet". Both Riley and Dunbar wrote poems in both standard English and dialect. His second book, Majors and Minors (1895) brought him national fame and the patronage of William Dean Howells
William Dean Howells
William Dean Howells was an American realist author and literary critic. Nicknamed "The Dean of American Letters", he was particularly known for his tenure as editor of the Atlantic Monthly as well as his own writings, including the Christmas story "Christmas Every Day" and the novel The Rise of...

, the novelist and critic
A critic is anyone who expresses a value judgement. Informally, criticism is a common aspect of all human expression and need not necessarily imply skilled or accurate expressions of judgement. Critical judgements, good or bad, may be positive , negative , or balanced...

 and editor of The Atlantic. After Howells' praise, his first two books were combined as Lyrics of Lowly Life and Dunbar started on a career of international literary fame. He moved to Washington, D.C., in the LeDroit Park neighborhood. While in Washington, he attended Howard University
Howard University
Howard University is a federally chartered, non-profit, private, coeducational, nonsectarian, historically black university located in Washington, D.C., United States...


Dunbar maintained a lifelong friendship with the Wrights. He was also associated with Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass was an American social reformer, orator, writer and statesman. After escaping from slavery, he became a leader of the abolitionist movement, gaining note for his dazzling oratory and incisive antislavery writing...

, Booker T. Washington
Booker T. Washington
Booker Taliaferro Washington was an American educator, author, orator, and political leader. He was the dominant figure in the African-American community in the United States from 1890 to 1915...

 and Brand Whitlock
Brand Whitlock
Brand Whitlock , an American municipal reformer, diplomat, journalist, and author. Born Joseph Brand Whitlock at Urbana, Ohio, son of the Rev. Elias and Mollie Lavinia Whitlock, he was educated in the public schools and by private tutors. He also studied law under Senator J. M...

 (who was described as a close friend). He was honored with a ceremonial sword by President Theodore Roosevelt
Theodore Roosevelt
Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt was the 26th President of the United States . He is noted for his exuberant personality, range of interests and achievements, and his leadership of the Progressive Movement, as well as his "cowboy" persona and robust masculinity...


Later work

Dunbar wrote a dozen books of poetry, four books of short stories, five novels, and a play. He also wrote lyrics for In Dahomey
In Dahomey
In Dahomey was a landmark American musical comedy, in that it was "the first full-length musical written and played by blacks to be performed at a major Broadway house." It featured music by Will Marion Cook, book by Jesse A. Shipp, and lyrics by Paul Laurence Dunbar...

 - the first musical written and performed entirely by African-Americans to appear on Broadway
Broadway theatre
Broadway theatre, commonly called simply Broadway, refers to theatrical performances presented in one of the 40 professional theatres with 500 or more seats located in the Theatre District centered along Broadway, and in Lincoln Center, in Manhattan in New York City...

 in 1903; the musical comedy successfully toured England and America over a period of four years - one of the more successful theatrical productions of its time. His essays and poems were published widely in the leading journals of the day. His work appeared in Harper's Weekly
Harper's Weekly
Harper's Weekly was an American political magazine based in New York City. Published by Harper & Brothers from 1857 until 1916, it featured foreign and domestic news, fiction, essays on many subjects, and humor...

, the Saturday Evening Post, the Denver Post, Current Literature and a number of other publications. During his life, considerable emphasis was laid on the fact that Dunbar was of pure black descent.

Dunbar traveled to England in 1897 to recite his works on the London literary circuit. He met the brilliant young black composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was an English composer who achieved such success that he was once called the "African Mahler".-Early life and education:...

 who set some of his poems to music and who was influenced by Dunbar to use African and American Negro songs and tunes in future compositions.

Marriage and declining health

After returning from England, Dunbar married Alice Ruth Moore in 1898. A graduate of harvard ty (now Dillard University
Dillard University
Dillard University is a private, historically black liberal arts college in New Orleans, Louisiana. Founded in 1930 incorporating earlier institutions that went back to 1869, it is affiliated with the United Church of Christ and the United Methodist Church....

) in New Orleans, her most famous works include a short story entitled "Violets". She and her husband also wrote books of poetry as companion pieces. An account of their love, life and marriage was depicted in a play by Kathleen McGhee-Anderson titled Oak and Ivy.

Dunbar took a job at the Library of Congress
Library of Congress
The Library of Congress is the research library of the United States Congress, de facto national library of the United States, and the oldest federal cultural institution in the United States. Located in three buildings in Washington, D.C., it is the largest library in the world by shelf space and...

 in Washington. In 1900, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis
Tuberculosis, MTB, or TB is a common, and in many cases lethal, infectious disease caused by various strains of mycobacteria, usually Mycobacterium tuberculosis. Tuberculosis usually attacks the lungs but can also affect other parts of the body...

 and moved to Colorado
Colorado is a U.S. state that encompasses much of the Rocky Mountains as well as the northeastern portion of the Colorado Plateau and the western edge of the Great Plains...

 with his wife on the advice of his doctors. Dunbar and his wife separated in 1902, but they never divorced. Depression and declining health drove him to a dependence on alcohol, which further damaged his health. He moved back to Dayton to be with his mother in 1904. Dunbar died from tuberculosis
Tuberculosis, MTB, or TB is a common, and in many cases lethal, infectious disease caused by various strains of mycobacteria, usually Mycobacterium tuberculosis. Tuberculosis usually attacks the lungs but can also affect other parts of the body...

 on February 9, 1906, at age thirty-three. He was interred in the Woodland Cemetery in Dayton.

In 2002, Molefi Kete Asante
Molefi Kete Asante
Molefi Kete Asante is an African-American scholar, historian, and philosopher. He is a leading figure in the fields of African American studies, African Studies and Communication Studies...

 listed Paul Laurence Dunbar on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans
100 Greatest African Americans
100 Greatest African Americans is a biographical dictionary of the one hundred historically greatest African Americans , as assessed by Molefi Kete Asante in 2002.-Criteria:...


Usage of dialect

Much of Dunbar's work was authored in conventional English, while some was rendered in African-American dialect. Dunbar remained always suspicious that there was something demeaning about the marketability of dialect poems:
Two brief examples of Dunbar's work, the first in standard English and the second in dialect, demonstrate the diversity of the poet's production:
What dreams we have and how they fly
Like rosy clouds across the sky;
Of wealth, of fame, of sure success,
Of love that comes to cheer and bless;
And how they wither, how they fade,
The waning wealth, the jilting jade —
The fame that for a moment gleams,
Then flies forever, — dreams, ah — dreams!

(From "Dreams")
"Sunshine on de medders,
Greenness on de way;
Dat's de blessed reason
I sing all de day."
Look hyeah! What you axing'?
What meks me so merry?
'Spect to see me sighin'
W'en hit's wa'm in Febawary?

(From "A warm day in winter")

Dunbar's vaudeville song "Who Dat Say Chicken in Dis Crowd" may have influenced the development of "Who dat? Who dat? Who dat say gonna beat dem Saints?
Who Dat?
Who dat? is an English idiom originating from New Orleans for over a century. First referenced in poetry, the phrase was a common dialogue element between the performers and crowd at traveling minstrel shows in the region. Eventually, the phrase became used in US cinematic productions for two...

", the New Orleans Saints
New Orleans Saints
The New Orleans Saints are a professional American football team based in New Orleans, Louisiana. They are members of the South Division of the National Football Conference of the National Football League ....

' chant.


  • L. K. Wiggins, compiler, Life and Works of Paul Laurence Dunbar (1907)
  • Complete Poetical Works, with W. D. Howells's
    William Dean Howells
    William Dean Howells was an American realist author and literary critic. Nicknamed "The Dean of American Letters", he was particularly known for his tenure as editor of the Atlantic Monthly as well as his own writings, including the Christmas story "Christmas Every Day" and the novel The Rise of...

     introduction to "Lyrics of Lowly Life" (new impressions, New York, 1913)
  • "The Collected Poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar" by Paul Laurence Dunbar, Joanne M. Braxton, editor

See also

  • African American literature
    African American literature
    African-American literature is the body of literature produced in the United States by writers of African descent. The genre traces its origins to the works of such late 18th century writers as Phillis Wheatley and Olaudah Equiano, reaching early high points with slave narratives and the Harlem...

  • Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park
    Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park
    thumb|left|200 px|The Wright Flyer III, now in Carillon Historical Park, shown being flown by Orville Wright on October 4, 1905, over [[Huffman Prairie]] near Dayton...

    • Paul Laurence Dunbar House
      Paul Laurence Dunbar House
      The Paul Laurence Dunbar House was the 1904-1906 home of poet Paul Laurence Dunbar in Dayton, Ohio. It is a historic house museum owned by the state of Ohio and operated by Dayton History on behalf of the Ohio Historical Society...

  • Samuel Coleridge-Taylor
    Samuel Coleridge-Taylor
    Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was an English composer who achieved such success that he was once called the "African Mahler".-Early life and education:...

     black composer

Places named in his honor:
  • Dunbar High School
    Dunbar High School
    Dunbar High School can refer to:* Dunbar High School , listed on the National Register of Historic Places in Jefferson County, Alabama* Dunbar High School — Chicago, Illinois...

     In various cities
  • Paul Laurence Dunbar High School (Fort Worth, Texas)
    Paul Laurence Dunbar High School (Fort Worth, Texas)
    Paul Laurence Dunbar High School is a comprehensive high school in the Stop Six neighborhood of Fort Worth, Texas.Named for the dialectical poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, the school strives to highly educate the majority African-American community it serves....

     (Fort Worth, {Stop Six}, Texas)
  • Dunbar Hospital
    Dunbar Hospital
    Dunbar Hospital was the first hospital in Detroit, Michigan for the black community. It is located at 580 Frederick Street, and is currently the administrative headquarters of the Detroit Medical Society. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.- Building construction...

     (Detroit, Michigan)
  • Dunbar Elementary School (Atlanta, Georgia)
  • Dunbar Magnet Middle School
    Dunbar Magnet Middle School
    Dunbar Gifted & Talented Education International Studies Magnet Middle School is a magnet middle school in Little Rock, Arkansas and administered by the Little Rock School District....

     (Little Rock, Arkansas)
  • Dunbar Middle School (Lynchburg, Virginia)
  • Paul Laurence Dunbar Library at Wright State University
    Wright State University
    Wright State University is a comprehensive public university with strong doctoral, research, and undergraduate programs, rated among the 260 Best National Universities listed in the annual "America's Best Colleges" rankings by U.S. News and World Report. Wright State is located in Fairborn, Ohio,...

     (Dayton, Ohio)
  • Paul Laurence Dunbar J.H.S 120/M.S. 301 (Bronx, NY)
  • Paul Laurence Dunbar Lancaster-Keist Branch Library (Dallas, Texas)
  • Dunbar High (Fort Myers, Florida)
  • The Dunbar Hotel
    Dunbar Hotel
    The Dunbar Hotel, originally known as the Hotel Somerville, was the focal point of the Central Avenue African-American community in Los Angeles, California during the 1930s and 1940s. Built in 1928, it was known for its first year as the Hotel Somerville...

     (Los Angeles, California)

External links

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