As the Dayton region celebrates literary icon Paul Laurence Dunbar’s sesquicentennial anniversary (150 years), the Paul Laurence Dunbar High School Alumni Association is committed to upholding his influential legacy.
Founded in 1979 by former teacher and principal David Williams, the community-focused association is fueled by partnering with and supporting Dunbar High School –the first Black high school in Dayton circa 1931– morally, financially, physically and positively.
In recent years, the association, which had other entities prior to 1979, has established a connection with Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C., America’s first public high school for Black students.
Born in Dayton on June 27, 1872, Dunbar, the son of former slaves who dreamed of a career in law, achieved prominence as a writer, poet, composer, librettist, novelist and playwright. His groundbreaking acclaim stemmed from creating authentic works that challenged and inspired, particularly his timeless, relevant 1895 poem “We Wear the Mask.”
Assessing the full spectrum of Dunbar’s accomplishments, the Alumni Association reminds the community that his prolific 33 years, which included being the only Black student at Central High School and traveling to England on a literary tour, was filled with adversity and hardship.
“Dunbar had to sell his writings while working as an elevator operator,” said Margaret Booze, president of the Dunbar High School Alumni Association. “A lot of things hadn’t changed from the time Dunbar died in 1906 to the time Dunbar High School was built. I don’t want our young people to forget Black history. Sometimes Black history is told by others outside our community, which must change. There are some young people who are eager to learn yet there are others who have given up on the struggle of being Black in this country. The parallels are so similar between what Dunbar went through and where we are today.”
Dunbar High School graduated its first class in 1936. Booze, a member of the Class of 1968, is proud of the strong, close-knit bonds formed among many classes and the association’s annual graveside tributes at Woodland Cemetery every February to commemorate Dunbar’s death. Still, she acknowledges there is work to do on behalf of current and future students.
“I have argued that Dunbar should be a part of the curriculum,” said Booze. “If we can talk about Shakespeare in literature we can talk about Dunbar. It’s important to talk about Dunbar at Dunbar High School. I also desire to have all of the Dunbar High Schools across the country come to Dayton as a sign (of solidarity).”
Credit: Russell Florence
Credit: Russell Florence
‘I will always defend and protect Dunbar’
Dunbar historian and scholar LaVerne Sci, associate member of the Dunbar High School Alumni Association, grew up with a deep reverence for his poetry and stylized language. She has fond memories of her mother reading Dunbar’s poems to her as a child and participating in her family’s lovingly competitive recitations of his works.
“Dunbar wrote every form of the language,” said Sci, who served for 20 years as site manager and director of the Paul Laurence Dunbar House Historic Site. “He wrote in German dialect, Spanish dialect and Southern dialect. But all the education he had in the world was right here in Dayton.”
Sci also admires Dunbar’s ability to showcase Black intellect to the masses during a time when entertainment was generally top of mind.
“Dunbar was among the first to put on paper reasons for giving dignity to Black people,” she explained. “Up until Dunbar came along, Blacks were seen as (devices) for silly, simple entertainment. But Dunbar brought humanity to the Black man. His parents, ex slaves, had been worth no more than a table or a chair but he saw them with beauty and intelligence. He felt sorry for his parents because they had been so denied. But he and his parents were determined. We know a lot about the Wright brothers, but I will always defend and protect Dunbar.”
“Dunbar wanted to show the world that Blacks are more than the color of our skin,” added Booze. “He wanted to show the world that Blacks are intelligent human beings. He wanted to make our people proud but also show the world that we have so much to be proud of in return. This year, we are giving him accolades on the celebration of his 150th birthday, but he’s worth celebrating every day.”
‘Dunbar 150: The Sesquicentennial Flagship Celebration’
Sci will be among the participants in “Dunbar 150: The Sesquicentennial Flagship Celebration” slated Saturday, June 25 at the Victoria Theatre.
Headlined by legendary poet/activist Nikki Giovanni, the event, spearheaded by the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park, will include an array of performances from such artists as Herbert Woodward Martin, Minnita Daniel-Cox, Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, University of Dayton Department of Music, the Tuskegee University Golden Voices Choir, and other special guests.
“We are excited to host this celebration,” said producer Gary Minyard, Dayton Live Vice President – Education and Engagement. “A lot of people view the Victoria Theatre as the historical performing arts landmark in this city. Dunbar also wrote a musical and performed his poetry so it makes sense that we would be celebrating his legacy in this theatre.”
Minyard also noted the historical significance of Dunbar appearing on the Victoria stage around the turn of the century.
“We have evidence that Dunbar, at the height of his popularity, gave a commencement address for a graduating high school class in this theatre,” he said.
Proceeds from the event will go toward future Dunbar initiatives and projects. Donations can also be made to the Paul Laurence Dunbar House Historic Site directly at https://planned2give.networkforgood.com/events/44016-the-dunbar-150-celebration.
“We hope to display Dunbar artifacts in order to make this event more of a rich experience rather than the audience merely being entertained,” added Minyard.
“The whole idea behind the 150 is to celebrate Paul Laurence Dunbar and I see it as a foundation to build upon,” said Angela Stewart, Park Ranger and Paul Laurence Dunbar 150th Project Manager, Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park. “Nikki Giovanni is coming to Dayton because we’re celebrating Dunbar in a way he needs to be celebrated. A lot of things are building from this event and we’re really excited. We’re going to present Dunbar’s works in incredible ways but also help raise awareness of the National Park Service and our role in preserving history. It’s important for people to learn about Dunbar on several different levels, especially in schools in Dayton, but it’s also important that as a community, we embrace the incredible figures that come out of the community. Paul Laurence Dunbar is one of the greatest.”
HOW TO GO
What: “Dunbar 150: The Sesquicentennial Flagship Celebration”
Where: Victoria Theatre, 138 N. Main St., Dayton
When: Saturday, June 25 at 5 p.m.
Tickets: Call 937-228-3630 or visit daytonlive.org
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