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POET (1872-1906)

Paul Lawrence Dunbar, was born, as was described in his day, a "pure black" that is, both his mother and father were known not to have any white ancestors.  Dunbar's father escaped from slavery in Kentucky to freedom in Canada, while his mother was freed by the events of the civil war, and came North to Ohio, where they met, and where their son was born at Dayton.  In Dayton, Dunbar's father picked up the trade of a plasterer, and taught himself to read; his love was history.  His mother shared his father's passion for literature, and her love was poetry.  Even while attending school, he received considerable praise around Dayton for his inventiveness with poetry and fiction.  Notable schoolmates were the Wright Brothers, the inventors of the airplane, with whom Dunbar remained friends with for life.  

Wright State University in Dayton has an extraordinarily large collection of Dunbar's papers.  There is a Class of 1890, Central High School photo with Dunbar and Orville Wright.  Though Dunbar was 20 and operating an elevator when his first two works, "Oak" and "Ivy" (1892), was published, he already had a reputation in Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois.  An invitation to recite at the 1893 World's Fair introduced him to Frederick Douglass, who was in charge of the Haitian exhibit.   Douglass gave Dunbar a job, and later said that he considered Dunbar to be "the most promising young colored man in America."  However, they did not reach the national scene.  "Majors and Minors" was soon published in 1895, and caught the attention of the famous literary critic William Dean Howell's.  Howells' favorable review in "Harper's weekly" made Dunbar a national figure overnight.  "Lyrics of a Lowly Life" (1896), a combination of the first two books published with an introduction by Howells, awarded him a national reputation and enabled him to concentrate upon a literary career. 

Revised: July 18, 2013.