Paul Laurence Dunbar
Born:June 27, 187
Died: February 9, 1906
Paul Laurence Dunbar was the first African-American poet to garner national critical acclaim. Born in Dayton, Ohio, in 1872. He wrote a lot of dialect poems, standard English poems, essays, novels and short stories before he died at the age of 33. His work was often about the difficulties encountered by members of his race and the efforts of African-Americans to achieve equality in America.
He was praised both by the prominent literary critics of his time and his literary contemporaries. Paul was born on June 27, 1872, to Matilda and Joshua Dunbar, both Kentucky natives. His mother was a former slave and his father escaped from slavery and served in the 55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment.
Matilda and Joshua had two other children before separating in 1874. His mother also had two children from a previous marriage. The family was poor, and after his father left, his mother supported her children by working in Dayton as a washerwoman. One of the families she worked for was the family of Orville and Wilbur Wright, with whom her son attended Dayton’s Central High School.
Paul’s mother inspired him to write poetry and he started at the earliest age of 6. He was the only African-American in his class at school and while he had a difficult time finding a job because of his race he rose to great heights at school. He also wrote for community newspapers. He worked as an elevator operator until h established himself locally and nationally as a writer. His first public reading was on his birthday in 1892.
After returning from England, Dunbar married Alice Ruth Moore, a young writer, teacher and proponent of racial and gender equality who had a master’s degree from Cornell University. Dunbar took a job at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. He found the work tiresome, however, and it is believed the library’s dust contributed to his worsening case of tuberculosis. He worked there for only a year before quitting to write and recite full time.
In 1902, Dunbar and his wife separated. Depression stemming from the end of his marriage and declining health drove him to a dependence on alcohol, which further damaged his health. He continued to write, however. He ultimately produced 12 books of poetry, four books of short stories, a play and five novels. His work appeared in Harper’s Weekly, the Sunday Evening Post, the Denver Post, Current Literature and a number of other magazines and journals. He traveled to Colorado and visited his half-brother in Chicago before returning to his mother in Dayton in 1904. He died there on Feb. 9, 1906.