Paul Laurence Dunbar

Paul Laurence Dunbar (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

Paul Laurence Dunbar

June 27, 1872 – February 9, 1906)

Paul Laurence Dunbar, born and raised in Dayton, Ohio, is the son of two pre-Civil War Kentucky slaves. His father left early in his life, but his mother shared her love of education with Dunbar, who began writing verse as a young boy. He published his first poems as a teenager in a local newspaper and was active in his high school’s literary society.

Dunbar’s writing career began in 1893, when he subsidized the printing of his first collection of poetry with Brethren Publishing House.  The poems were written in both traditional English verse and in “Negro dialect.” He was able to recoup his investment less than a month after the printing, due largely to selling the book as he worked as an elevator operator.  With the financial support of a local group of citizens, he was able to travel to other cities to promote his poetry, and his second book was published in 1896.

After receiving positive reviews from the well-known editor of Harpers’ Weekly, William Dean Howells, on his second book of verse, Dunbar expanded both his relationships with other writers and in the literary world. Dunbar befriended and worked with a number of distinguished persons – Booker T. Washington, Orville and Wilbur Wright, Frederick Douglass, Brand Whitlock, and James D. Corrothers. By 1897, he traveled to England for a literary tour, was the inspiration for Samuel Coleridge-Taylor to set his poetry to music, and wrote the lyrics for a musical show called In Dahomey, which went on to be one of the most popular musicals of the time and the first one entirely written by African Americans (Will Marion Cook and Jesse A. Shipp were the composers). It premiered on Broadway in 1903, and the show traveled for four years throughout England and the United States.

In his short lifetime, Dunbar wrote lyrics for a musical and published the following: twelve volumes of poetry, four novels, four books of short stories, one play, and numerous articles for newspapers and magazines. Dunbar eventually became one the first internationally-recognized African American writers.

In 1896, he married Alice Ruth Moore, a teacher and poet from New Orleans. College educated, the two often wrote companion pieces of poetry. In 1897, Dunbar worked for the Library of Congress, and lived in the LeDroit Park neighborhood of Washington D.C. However, he left the job to focus on his writings. Moore and Dunbar separated in 1902 after a failed attempt at living in Colorado. Due to his increased dependency on alcohol to self-medicate his health issues, Dunbar began physically abusing Moore. The two never divorced.

Dunbar was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1900, and his health quickly deteriorated due to his condition, severe depression, and a heavy drinking habit. Following his separation, he returned to Dayton in 1904 to live with his mother at the family house. He died on February 9, 1906 at the age of 33. He is buried in Dayton at Woodland Cemetery and Arboretum. He is located in Section 101, Lot 3465.


Many schools, libraries, and other institutions have honored Dunbar’s achievements. He was an influence on many of the writers that followed in his path, such as Maya Angelou and others writing during the Harlem Renaissance. Today, Dunbar is still celebrated and his family’s home is a state historical site. It is included in the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park.  Paul Laurence Dunbar

Works of poetry

  • Oak and Ivy (1892)
  • Majors and Minors (1896)
  • Lyrics of Lowly Life (1896)
  • "We Wear the Mask" (1896)
  • Li'l' Gal (1896)
  • When Malindy Sings (1896)
  • Poems of Cabin and Field (1899)
  • Candle-lightin' Time (1901)
  • Lyrics of the Hearthside (published 1902 with a copyright date of 1899)
  • The Haunted Oak (1900)
  • In Old Plantation Days (1903)
  • Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow (1905)
  • Joggin' Erlong (1906)

Short stories and novels

  • Folks From Dixie (1898) (short story collection)
  • The Heart of Happy Hollow: A Collection of Stories (1904)
  • The Strength of Gideon and Other Stories (1900)
  • The Uncalled (1898) (novel)
  • The Love of Landry (1900) (novel)
  • The Fanatics (1901) (novel)
  • The Sport of the Gods (1902) (novel)


  • "Representative American Negroes", in The Negro Problem, by Booker T. Washington, et al.

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