Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906)

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Paul Laurence Dunbar (June 27, 1872 - February 9, 1906) was the first African American poet to become nationally known. His books of poems include Oak and Ivy (1892), Majors and Minors (1895), Lyrics of a Lowly Life (1896), Poems of Cabin and Field (1899), When Malindy Sings (1903), and Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow (1905). His works of fiction include The Uncalled (1898), Folks from Dixie (1898), The Strength of Gideon (1900), and The Sport of the Gods (1902).

When he was 14, he’d already had poetry published in the Dayton Herald, and in high school he edited the Dayton Tattler, an African American newspaper. He could not afford to go to college despite his excellent work as a student. In 1892, one of his former teachers asked him to read his poetry at a meeting of the Western Association of Writers, and when he did, he received much encouragement, including from the poet James Whitcomb Riley. A year later, Dunbar self-published a volume of poetry. He then moved to Chicago, where he became friends with Frederick Douglass, who got him a job as a clerk and arranged for a reading of his work. His poetry was then published in national newspapers and magazines such as The New York Times.

After publishing his second book of poetry, Dunbar went to England for a six-month reading tour, then returned to America and received a clerkship in the Library of Congress. He married the writer Alice Dunbar-Nelson in 1898, but their marriage was stormy and they separated in 1902 (but never divorced). He continued publishing poetry and other writings, including lyrics for In Dahomey (1903), the first Broadway musical written and performed entirely by an African American cast. He drew on his parents’ experiences as slaves in much of his work.

In 1900, diagnosed with tuberculosis and alcoholic, he left DC to try to regain his health. Dunbar returned to his mother's home in Dayton, OH where he died in 1906 at the age of 33. He is remembered locally with a DC public high school named in his honor.

info from AND Beltway Poetry Quarterly: DC Writers’ Homes:

Written by Monica Root, December 2013; edited by Kim Roberts, January 2016.

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