If you enter Paul Laurence Dunbar’s house today you may think the poet has just stepped out.
Dunbar, one of the first nationally known African-American writers, purchased the two-story brick house at 219 N. Summit St. in Dayton in 1904 for his mother, Matilda. The poet had chronic health problems throughout his life and had been diagnosed with tuberculosis.
“He is very sick and wants to make sure his mother is taken care of when he passes away,” said Gregg Smith, a ranger with the National Park Service who manages the historic home.
Matilda cared for her son the final years of his life at the house before he died on Feb. 9, 1906 at age 33.
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After his death, Matilda did not let anyone enter his bedroom or his study, according to Smith, which helped ensure his possessions remained untouched.
Standing in Dunbar’s upstairs study and bedroom today, you are surrounded by the things he held dear. Shelves are heavy with his collection of books. Edith Wharton, William Ernst Henley and Washington Irving are a few of the names embossed on the spines.
“The books were important to him to read and learn the style of other writers,” said Smith.
The desk where he composed poems and collections of short stories is covered with photographs and mementos from his travels. One of the canes he carried is hung over the back of the desk chair.
A well-worn early reclining chair sits next to a small table with a tea set on top. It’s the perfect spot to rest, read and ruminate.
Enter Dunbar’s bedroom and you will see the pillowcases are slightly rumpled, as if he just got up from an afternoon nap. A large traveling trunk with a hat case and a pair of his shoes sitting on top is placed at the foot of the bed.
The jar in which he kept tobacco and his hairbrush are placed on a small wooden bureau. Across the way, positioned in the light of a window, is the Remington Standard typewriter he used to compose poems, letters, and newspaper editorials.
Downstairs, the parlor is filled with the Dunbar’s furniture with the family Bible opened in the center of the room.
The dining room table is set with the place settings that Matilda, a former slave, and her son used. Sunlight illuminates the blue-rimmed dishes with colorful flowers painted in the center.
The hutch that stored the Dunbars’ dishes, embellished in carved details, hid a bed inside the back that could be opened when moved away from the wall.
Though ill, Dunbar wrote under the roof of his west Dayton home almost until the day he died. “The Heart of Happy Hallow,” “Li’l Gal,” “Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow,” and “Howdy, Honey, Howdy” were all published in the last two years of his life.
Matilda continued to live in the house until her death in 1934. In 1936, the home became the first state memorial to honor an African-American.
“When you go into the house you go back into time,” said Smith. “It’s a special place to highlight one of Dayton’s finest.”