Paul Laurence Dunbar, one of the first nationally known African-American writers and his mother, Matilda. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE OHIO HISTORY CONNECTION

Dayton’s Paul Laurence Dunbar to be remembered Friday

Annual graveside tribute at Woodland Cemetery

Admirers of one of the first nationally known African-American writers can commemorate his legacy Friday at the 30th Paul Laurence Dunbar Graveside Tribute.

The annual event, held at Woodland Cemetery and Arboretum, begins with a processional to the grave site of Dayton-born Dunbar, the son of former slaves.

A cabinet card portrait of author Paul Laurence Dunbar as a young man in 1890. Dunbar was born in Dayton in 1872 to former slaves and was the first African-American poet to receive critical acclaim for his work. He died in Dayton Feb. 9, 1906. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE OHIO HISTORY CONNECTION
Photo: Staff Writer

Dunbar’s father, Joshua, escaped slavery and enlisted in the Union Army before settling in Dayton. His mother, Matilda, was born a slave in Fayette County, Ky., but despite being illiterate instilled a love for language in her son.

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At age 6, Dunbar wrote his first poem, “An Easter Ode.” Six years later he recited that poem to the congregation of Eaker Street A.M.E. Church in Dayton, his first known public reading.

Life was difficult for the family. Lack of work and alcoholism led to divorce for Dunbar’s parents. Joshua died in 1885 when his son was 13.

Dunbar’s two older brothers dropped out of school to help support the family, but Matilda, who had a special bond with her youngest son who was a frail child, made sure Paul was educated.

Dunbar attended the Tenth Street Elementary School and then went on to attend Central High School, where he edited the Dayton Tattler, an African-American newspaper published by his classmate Orville Wright.

During high school his first published work “Our Martyred Soldiers,” a poem about Memorial Day, appeared in the pages of the Dayton Herald.

Paul Laurence Dunbar, the first internationally renowned African American poet and writer.

After high school Dunbar found career prospects limited for an African-American man. He worked briefly as a janitor at NCR, before finding work as an elevator operator in the Callahan Building in downtown Dayton.

While working, he scribbled down bits of poetry between calls and studied the dialects of the riders. That work eventually led to his first self-published book, “Oak and Ivy,” which he sold for $1 to the people who rode his elevator.

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“Majors and Minors,” his second book of poetry, was published in 1896 and transported him to national acclaim. He toured the United States giving public readings and in 1897 sailed to London where he traveled in English literary circles.

Dunbar used his mastery of words to court Alice Ruth Moore, a literary figure in her own right, and the couple eloped in 1898.

A portrait of Paul Laurence Dunbar seated in a rocking chair between 1900 - 1906. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE OHIO HISTORY CONNECTION
Photo: Ohio History Connection

Dunbar’s chronic health problems worsened. Diagnosed with tuberculosis, he sought relief through alcohol. Alice Ruth Moore left him in 1902.

The last three years of his life, Dunbar kept writing while his mother cared for him. He died Feb. 9, 1906, at age 33, and was buried in Woodland Cemetery.

WANT TO GO?

What: 30th Graveside Tribute to Paul Laurence Dunbar

Where: Woodland Cemetery and Arboretum, 118 Woodland Ave., Dayton

When: Friday, Feb. 8. The procession will begin at the Woodland mausoleum at 9:45 a.m. A wreath-laying and tribute will be held graveside, followed by a reception in the mausoleum.

The event is free and open to the public.

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