Paul Laurence Dunbar was born at 311 Howard Street in Dayton, Ohio, on June 27, 1872, to parents who had been enslaved in Kentucky before the American Civil War. After being emancipated, his mother Matilda had moved to Dayton with other family members, including her two sons Robert and William from her first marriage. Dunbar's father Joshua had escaped from slavery in Kentucky before the war ended. He traveled to Massachusetts and volunteered for the 55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, one of the first two black units to serve in the war. The senior Dunbar also served in the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry Regiment. Paul Dunbar was born six months after Joshua and Matilda married on Christmas Eve, 1871.
Dunbar's parents began having marital problems a few months after their son's birth. They also had a daughter together, whom Joshua ignored. Because of their problems, Matilda took all her children and left him. Joshua Dunbar died on August 16, 1885, when his son Paul was 12 years old.
Dunbar wrote his first poem at the age of six and gave his first public recital at the age of nine. His mother Matilda assisted him in his schooling, having learned to read expressly for that purpose. She often read the Bible with him, and thought he might become a minister for the African Methodist Episcopal Church. It was the first independent black denomination, founded in Philadelphia in the early 19th century.
Dunbar was the only African-American student during his years at Central High School in Dayton. Well-accepted, he was elected as president of the school's literary society, and became the editor of the school newspaper and a member of the debate club.
At the age of 16, Dunbar published "Our Martyred Soldiers" and "On The River" in 1888 in Dayton's The Herald newspaper. In 1890 Dunbar wrote and edited The Tattler, Dayton's first weekly African-American newspaper. It was printed by the fledgling company of his high-school acquaintances, Wilbur and Orville Wright. The paper lasted six weeks.
After completing his formal schooling in 1891, Dunbar took a job as an elevator operator, earning a salary of four dollars a week. He had hoped to go to study law, but was not able to because of his mother's limited finances, and he was restricted at work because of racial discrimination. The next year, Dunbar asked the Wrights to publish his dialect poems in book form, but the brothers did not have a facility that could print books. They suggested he go to the United Brethren Publishing House which, in 1893, printed Dunbar's first collection of poetry, Oak and Ivy. Dunbar subsidized the printing of the book, and quickly earned back his investment in two weeks by selling copies personally, often to passengers on his elevator.
The larger section of the book, the "Oak" section, consisted of traditional verse, whereas the smaller section, the "Ivy", featured light poems written in dialect. The work attracted the attention of James Whitcomb Riley, the popular "Hoosier Poet". Both Riley and Dunbar wrote poems in both standard English and dialect.
His gifts were recognized and older men reached out to help him. Attorney Charles A. Thatcher offered to help him with college, but Dunbar wanted to persist with writing, as he was encouraged by his sales of poetry. Thatcher helped promote Dunbar, arranging work to read his poetry in the larger city of Toledo at "libraries and literary gatherings." In addition, psychiatrist Henry A. Tobey took an interest and assisted Dunbar, helping distribute his first book in Toledo and sometimes offering him financial aid. Together, Thatcher and Tobey supported the publication of Dunbar's second verse collection, Majors and Minors (1896).
Despite frequently publishing poems and occasionally giving public readings, Dunbar had difficulty supporting himself and his mother. Many of his efforts were unpaid and he was a reckless spender, leaving him in debt by the mid-1890s.
On June 27, 1896, the novelist, editor, and critic William Dean Howells, who was associated with the prominent Atlantic Monthly based in Boston, published a favorable review of Dunbar's second book, Majors and Minors. Howells' influence brought national attention to the poet's writing. Though Howell praised the "honest thinking and true feeling" in Dunbar's traditional poems, he particularly praised the dialect poems. The new literary fame enabled Dunbar to publish his first two books as the collected volume, Lyrics of Lowly Life, which included an introduction by Howells.
Dunbar maintained a lifelong friendship with the Wright brothers. Through his poetry, he met and became associated with black leaders Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington. He also became a friend of Brand Whitlock, a journalist in Toledo who went on to work in Chicago, then became part of state government and had a political and diplomatic career.
By the late 1890s, Dunbar started to explore the short story and novel forms; in the latter, he frequently featured white characters and society.
Dunbar was prolific during his relatively short career: he wrote a dozen books of poetry, four books of short stories, four novels, lyrics for a musical, and a play.
His first collection of short stories Folks From Dixie (1898), a sometimes "harsh examination of racial prejudice," had favorable reviews.
This was not the case for his first novel The Uncalled (1898), which critics described as "dull and unconvincing". Dunbar explored the spiritual struggles of a white minister Frederick Brent, who had been abandoned by his alcoholic father and raised by a virtuous white spinster, Hester Prime. (Both the minister and woman's name recalled Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, which featured a central character named Hester Prynne.) With this novel, Dunbar has been noted as one of the first African Americans to cross the "color line" by writing a work only about white society, but critics complained about his handling of the material, not his subject. The novel was not a commercial success.
Dunbar's next two novels also explored lives and issues in white culture, and critics found these lacking.
In collaboration with the composer Will Marion Cook and Jesse A. Shipp, who wrote the libretto, Dunbar wrote the lyrics for In Dahomey, the first musical written and performed entirely by African Americans. It was produced on Broadway in 1903; the musical comedy successfully toured England and the United States over a period of four years and was one of the more successful theatrical productions of its time.
Dunbar's essays and poems were published widely in the leading journals of the day, including Harper's Weekly, the Saturday Evening Post, the Denver Post, Current Literature and others. During his life, commentators often noted that Dunbar appeared to be purely black African, at a time when many leading members of the African-American community were notably of mixed race, often with considerable European ancestry.
In 1897 Dunbar traveled to England for a literary tour; he recited his works on the London circuit. He met the young black composer, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, who set some of Dunbar's poems to music. Coleridge-Taylor was influenced by Dunbar to use African and American Negro songs and tunes in future compositions. Also living in London at the time, African-American playwright Henry Francis Downing arranged a joint recital for Dunbar and Coleridge-Taylor, under the patronage of John Hay, the American ambassador to Britain. Downing also lodged Dunbar in London while the poet worked on his first novel, The Uncalled (1898).
Marriage and declining health
After returning from the United Kingdom, Dunbar married Alice Ruth Moore on March 6, 1898. She was a teacher and poet from New Orleans whom he had met three years earlier. Dunbar called her "the sweetest, smartest little girl I ever saw". A graduate of Straight University (now Dillard University), a historically black college, Moore is best known for her 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 portrayed in Oak and Ivy, a 2001 play by Kathleen McGhee-Anderson.
In October 1897 Dunbar took a job at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. He and his wife moved to the capital, where they lived in the comfortable LeDroit Park neighborhood. Under the urging of his wife, Dunbar soon left the job to focus on his writing, which he promoted through public readings.
In 1900, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis (TB), then often fatal, and his doctors recommended drinking whisky to alleviate his symptoms. On the advice of his doctors, he moved to Colorado with his wife, as the cold, dry mountain air was considered favorable for TB patients. 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.
Dunbar returned to Dayton in 1904 to be with his mother. He died of tuberculosis on February 9, 1906, at the age of 33. He was interred in the Woodland Cemetery in Dayton.