During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, three different men from Dayton, Ohio used creativity, ingenuity, and courage to positively challenge the world around them and thus influence American and world history. While many of the sites in Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park follow the incredible story of Orville and Wilbur Wright and their quest to better understand and master the principles of flight, another unit within the park commemorates the story of the influential African American poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar. By the end of his short life at the young age of 33, Dunbar was the author of dialectic poems, Standard English poems, essays, novels, and short stories.
Paul Laurence Dunbar State Memorial, a unit of the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park and a National Historic Landmark, tells the story of Paul Laurence Dunbar, the first African American writer to win high distinction in American literature. Born June 27, 1872 to Joshua and Matilda Dunbar, two former slaves, Dunbar had parents who loved books and reading and told stories about slave life and the Civil War. Matilda Dunbar shared her love of poetry, songs, and storytelling with Dunbar and encouraged him to read. Inspired by his mother’s love of language, Dunbar began writing and reciting poetry as early as the age of six.
While attending Dayton public schools as the only African American in his class, Dunbar used poetry to express his own personal thoughts, his observations of society, and the experiences of his parents. His works often addressed the difficulties African Americans faced in their struggle for racial equality in America. He contributed poems to his high school newspaper, served as its editor, was on the school’s debate team, and was president of his school's literary society.
1890 Central High School Senior Class. Paul Laurence Dunbar (far left) was the only African American in the class
Courtesy of the National Park Service
Throughout these formative years, Dunbar received support from his classmates, his parents, and his teachers. One of his classmates and friends was Orville Wright. Orville and his brother Wilbur later supported Dunbar by printing Dunbar’s Dayton Tattler, a newspaper published for the area’s African American community. The Wright brothers’ printing business, Wright & Wright, Job Printers, was in the office suites of the Hoover Block, which is today a unit of the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park and the main visitor center for the park. In this historic building, the Wright brothers printed Dunbar’s newspaper as well as tickets and handbills to Dunbar’s public readings.
Upon graduation from Dayton Central High, Dunbar faced the reality of racism when he encountered limited employment opportunities. In the years after graduation, he worked as an elevator operator and a dishwasher in a downtown Dayton building. His employment did not deter him from continuing to write, often on the job between calls. By 1892, Dunbar had written and published his first book of poems, Oak and Ivy. He personally paid for its publication and sold it for one dollar a copy, often to people who rode the elevator he operated. By 1893, the book and Dunbar’s reputation spread, and he received an invitation to speak at the World’s Fair, where he met renowned abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
By 1895, two men from Dayton befriended Dunbar, Charles Thatcher and Dr. Henry A. Toby, who together funded the publication of Dunbar’s second book, Majors and Minors. This book received favorable reviews from well-known critic William Dean Howells. Howells’ favorable review, which appeared in a column in Harper’s Weekly, launched Dunbar into national and international fame. Howells praised Dunbar as the first African American writer to have “evinced innate distinction in literature.” This praise and publicity were catalysts for the publication of Dunbar’s third book, Lyrics of Lowly Life, for which Howells wrote the introduction. With the success of these books, Dunbar traveled to England to recite his works on a reading tour.
Upon returning from England, Dunbar took a job at the Library of Congress in 1897 and married Alice Ruth Moore, an author and a teacher. In 1898, he resigned from his position at the Library of Congress and dedicated himself to writing full time. In 1899, Dunbar was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and, in 1902, his marriage ended. He continued to write through these upsetting times and lived with his mother, eventually purchasing a house in Dayton, his home until he passed away in 1906 from tuberculosis.
Dunbar’s last home became the first home of a public memorial to an African American. After Dunbar’s mother passed away in 1934, the State of Ohio purchased the house, furnishings, and personal belongings at the site and turned the property over to the Ohio Historical Society to use as a State memorial and museum. The Dunbar House is a late 19th century – early 20th century red brick, nine-room Italianate building. Today, visitors can take guided tours of the site and observe many of Dunbar’s original manuscripts, personal belongings, and family furnishings, as well as his library, typewriter, and desk. Restored to appear much as it was when Paul and Matilda Dunbar lived in the house and with new interpretive panels installed to enrich the visitor’s experience, the Paul Laurence Dunbar State Memorial offers visitors an opportunity to learn about this distinguished African American author and the struggle for racial equality in the United States.
Other units in Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park commemorate the lives of Orville and Wilbur Wright, the pioneers of flight. The Wright Cycle Company Complex, the Wright Brothers Aviation Center, and the Huffman Prairie Flying Field and Interpretive Center are all in the park. Within the Wright Cycle Company Complex, the Wright-Dunbar Interpretive Center in the restored Hoover Block is right in the heart of the West Third Street Historic District in Dayton. At the interpretive center, visitors can learn about the lives and legacies of these three creative and exceptional men.
Paul Laurence Dunbar and to Orville and Wilbur Wright lived in the West Third Street Historic District, also known as Wright-Dunbar Village. Developed as a streetcar suburb in the 50 years after the Civil War, the area became a part of Dayton when the city annexed it in 1869. For many years, the neighborhood saw an influx of immigrants from Romania and Eastern Europe who came to work in the Dayton factories. In the 1920s, the district became a thriving community where many African Americans owned businesses, including the Palace Theatre. This preserved neighborhood is a reflection of Dayton’s history and a lasting testament to Orville and Wilbur Wright and Paul Laurence Dunbar. Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park celebrates and interprets cultural diversity, mental creativity, human ingenuity, and personal perseverance.
Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park, a unit of the National Park System, is located in Dayton, OH. Reservations are required to tour the Paul Laurence Dunbar State Memorial; please call 937-313-2010 to make a reservation. The operating hours for the rest of the park vary depending on the individual units. For more information, visit the National Park Service Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park website or call 937-225-7705.