Paul Laurence Dunbar (June 27, 1872 – February 9, 1906) was an American poet, novelist, and short story writer of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Born in Dayton, Ohio, to parents who had been enslaved in Kentucky before the American Civil War, Dunbar began writing stories and verse when he was a child. He published his first poems at the age of 16 in a Dayton newspaper, and served as president of his high school’s literary society.
Dunbar’s popularity increased rapidly after his work was praised by William Dean Howells, a leading editor associated with Harper’s Weekly. Dunbar became one of the first African-American writers to establish an international reputation. In addition to his poems, short stories, and novels, he also wrote the lyrics for the musical comedy In Dahomey (1903), the first all-African-American musical produced on Broadway in New York. The musical later toured in the United States and the United Kingdom. Suffering from tuberculosis, which then had no cure, Dunbar died in Dayton, Ohio, at the age of 33.
Much of Dunbar’s more popular work in his lifetime was written in the “Negro dialect” associated with the antebellum South, though he also used the Midwestern regional dialect of James Whitcomb Riley. Dunbar also wrote in conventional English in other poetry and novels. Since the late 20th century, scholars have become more interested in these other works.
Paul Laurence Dunbar was born at 311 Howard Street in Dayton, Ohio, on June 27, 1872, to parents who were enslaved in Kentucky before the American Civil War. After being emancipated, his mother Matilda moved to Dayton with other family members, including her two sons Robert and William from her first marriage. Dunbar’s father Joshua escaped from slavery in Kentucky before the war ended. He traveled to Massachusetts and volunteered for the 55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, one of the first two black units to serve in the war. The senior Dunbar also served in the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry Regiment. Paul Dunbar was born six months after Joshua and Matilda’s wedding on Christmas Eve, 1871.
The marriage of Dunbar’s parents was troubled, and Dunbar’s mother left Joshua soon after having their second child, a daughter. Joshua died on August 16, 1885, when Paul was 13 years old.
Dunbar wrote his first poem at the age of six and gave his first public recital at the age of nine. His mother assisted him in his schooling, having learned to read expressly for that purpose. She often read the Bible with him, and thought he might become a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. It was the first independent black denomination in America, founded in Philadelphia in the early 19th century.
Dunbar was the only African-American student during his years at Central High School in Dayton. Orville Wright was a classmate and friend. Well-accepted, he was elected as president of the school’s literary society, and became the editor of the school newspaper and a debate club member.