Paul Laurence Dunbar was born on June 27, 1872. His mother, Matilda Dunbar, was a former slave with a love for poetry. His father, Joshua Dunbar, was a civil war veteran who had served in the 55th Massachusetts Volunteers, a famous regiment whose ranks were composed of African-Americans. His parents divorced in 1874 and his mother worked long hours to support her family.
Dunbar published his first poems in school newspapers while attending Dayton's Central High School. Orville Wright was a classmate. After his graduation in 1891, the only work he could find was as an elevator operator in Dayton's Callahan Building. Many monotonous hours moving between floors allowed Dunbar's poetic creativity to flourish.
Throughout 1891 and 1892, Dunbar submitted his elevator poems for publication in newspapers and popular magazines with limited success. His first anthology, "Oak and Ivy", was printed in 1893 at his own expense. This small volume of poetry recovered his investment of $125, but by the end of 1893, the young poet was financially despondent.
Dunbar left Dayton in 1893 and moved to Chicago. He met abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who employed him at the World's Columbian Exposition. Within a few months, he returned to Dayton and his position of elevator operator.
When at his lowest, Dunbar was befriended by Dr. Henry Archibald Tobey, the distinguished superintendent of the Toledo State Hospital for the Insane. Dr. Tobey became Dunbar's greatest patron, more than once loaning the struggling poet substantial sums of money. Over the years, Dunbar was able to repay his benefactor, and also present to his friend a signed, inscribed copy of each of his increasingly popular works.
Dr. Tobey paid the printing costs for the private publication of Dunbar's second collection of poems, "Majors and Minors", in 1895. The young poet's second anthology contained some of his best work from "Oak and Ivy", together with original poems demonstrating a new maturity.
A small section of "Majors and Minors" (the "Minors" essentially) featured humorous poems in Kentucky black dialect, a voice which the author would find increasingly inescapable. "Majors and Minors" contained many of Dunbar's most enduring poems. Dr. Tobey circulated copies of the book among his friends who included the playwright James A. Herne. In turn, Herne sent a copy to an acquaintance, William Dean Howells.
On June 27, 1896, William Dean Howells, the nation's most prominent literary critic, published a glowing one page review of "Majors and Minors" in Harper's Weekly. By coincidence, the issue reported on the nomination of William McKinley for the presidency and consequently had a tremendous circulation. Dunbar, it was said, went to bed destitute and woke up on the morning of his twenty-fourth birthday as one of the most famous living Americans of African descent.
In 1897, Dunbar spent six months in England, touring and making personal appearances with the hope of furthering his career. The trip was not very successful financially, forcing him to return to the United States. Shortly after his return, Dunbar was hired by the Library of Congress with the assistance of Robert Ingersoll, an orator and political speechmaker.
In March of 1898, he married Alice Ruth Moore, a poet and school teacher. The marriage only lasted four years. After separating from Alice in 1902, Dunbar returned to Dayton. He died on February 9, 1906, at the age of 33 from tuberculosis.
In 1975, Dr. Tobey's grandson, Mr. William Shepard of Dayton, presented Tobey's nearly complete, inscribed collection of Dunbar's first editions to the Paul Laurence Dunbar Library at Wright State University. It is one of the most significant collections of Dunbar's work in existence.
Wright State University, established a Digital Text Collection to honor Dayton poet and novelist, Paul Laurence Dunbar, upon the occasion of the rededication of the Wright State University Library as the Paul Laurence Dunbar Library on May 2, 1992. This digital collection of a selected group of Dunbar's poetry is intended to encourage the use of and interest in the works of Dunbar. New content and enhancements were made to the site in May of 2005.
Special Collections and Archives has a nearly complete inscribed collection of Dunbar's first editions. This collection was donated to Wright State University in 1975 by William Shepard the grandson of Dr. Henry Archibald Tobey, a benefactor of Dunbar's.
To view "Oak and Ivy", visit http://www.libraries.wright.edu/special/dunbar/poems/oak_and_ivy/a_career.html.