Trailblazing poet Paul Laurence Dunbar honored with 150th birthday celebration

A celebration was held Saturday in recognition of the 150th birthday of Paul Laurence Dunbar at Woodland Cemetery and Mausoleum.

The event was part of a series of programs marking the sesquicentennial of the Dayton-born poet’s birth and was co-sponsored by the University of Dayton’s Department of Music and the National Park Service in collaboration with Woodland Cemetery.

Dunbar was born in Dayton on June 27, 1872. The son of formerly enslaved people, Dunbar was one of the first nationally-known Black writers. He published his first poem, “Our Martyred Soldiers,” in the Dayton Herald in 1888.

He went on to publish multiple poetry books, including “Majors and Minors,” which led 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. He wrote prolifically until his premature death.

ExploreTimeline: Paul Laurence Dunbar

“(Dunbar) is so integral to the American literary voice,” said Dr. Minnita Daniel-Cox, associate professor of music at UD and an organizer of Saturday’s event. “I call Dunbar ‘your favorite poet’s favorite poet.’ Maya Angelou was inspired by him. We hear his words, and he’s so integrated into the fabric of our society, we don’t even always realize it’s him.”

Dunbar died at age 33 on Feb. 9, 1906, following years of chronic health problems, which included several bouts of pneumonia and a tuberculosis diagnosis.

Saturday’s ceremony featured a performance by Dayton historian and scholar LaVerne Sci and a performance of Dunbar-themed music by the UD Chorale, conducted by Steven Hankle and accompanied by collaborative pianist John Benjamin.

“This is a wonderful connection between academic scholarship and community scholarship,” Daniel-Cox said. “(LaVerne Sci) has been safeguarding and coordinating the Dunbar gravesite ceremony on the day of his death for decades. This is an expansion of that.”

ExploreDunbar's prose, poetry are a treasured legacy

The gravesite portion of the event concluded with a motorcade that passed the Dunbar grave and continued in the Sears Recital Hall with a recital of “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: A Celebration of Paul Laurence Dunbar,” featuring UD English professor Emeritus Herbert Woodward Martin, along with Benjamin and Daniel-Cox.

“This is the recital that started all of my Dunbar research at UD,” Daniel-Cox said. “We did it for the first time about a decade ago and since then we’ve done it 25 times around the U.S., so (we brought) it back home again.”

Daniel-Cox, a performing scholar and voice area coordinator for UD, founded the Dunbar Music Archive in 2014.

“The music archive is simply an internet-based resource for people who are interested in learning more about Dunbar,” she said. “It includes poetry text, and streaming audio so that you can hear the poetry, which is really huge for Dunbar because of his standard English and dialect poems.”

Thanks to the work of Daniel-Cox and her colleagues, UD has received grants totaling more than $250,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to promote awareness, appreciation and scholarly inquiry into the work of Dunbar. These funds will go toward the upgrade and expansion of the archive into a library to include other Dunbar resources.

About the Author