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Paul Laurence Dunbar House

"Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906)." Circa 1890. The African-American Experience in Ohio, 1850-1920, Ohio Historical Society, Library of Congress.

Paul Laurence Dunbar (July 27, 1872-Feburary 9, 1906) holds the distinction of being the first African American poet to receive national acclaim since Phyllis Wheatly. The national recognition came from his third book, Lyrics of a Lowly Life, published in 1896. One poem in the collection, “Ode to Ethiopia”, depicts Dunbar’s pride in the African American people with hopes of a better future. Lyrics of a Lowly Life remains his best-known collection in spite of his prolific production of verse, four novels, stories, sketches, and a one act musical sketch. Dunbar lectured widely in the United States and England, and in 1897-98 was employed in Washington, D.C. at the Library of Congress. In 1897 Dunbar married Alice Rooth More, an author and teacher who had lived in New Orleans and New York. The marriage did not last, and Dunbar returned to his childhood town of Dayton, Ohio in 1903. He purchased for his mother the house at 219 North Summit Street where they both lived the remainder of their lives. Paul Lawrence Dunbar died in 1906 and she in 1934. The State of Ohio purchased the property, furnishings and personal belongings from her estate and turned them over to the Ohio Historical Society to be used as a State memorial and museum.

Paul Lawrence Dunbar Memorial
Photo courtesy of National Park Service Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park

Paul Lawrence Dunbar was born on Howard Street in Dayton, Ohio, to Matilda and Josiah Dunbar, both of whom were former slaves. His father had run away to Canada and had honorably served in the Union Army during the Civil War, while his mother had escaped slavery in Kentucky. At an early age Paul demonstrated his talents as a writer, and his first published work came in a newspaper put out by his high school friends and future inventors of the airplane, Wilbur and Orville Wright. His relationship with the Wright brothers continued when they invested in the Dayton Tattler, a newspaper edited and published by Dunbar and aimed at the readership of the local African American community. After graduating high school, Dunbar was employed in a variety of jobs, including an elevator operator and dishwater, and wrote in his spare time. His first book, Oak and Ivy, a collection of his poems, was published in Dayton. He was then befriended by two men from Dayton, Charles Thatcher and Dr. Henry A. Tobey, superintendent of the State Hospital, who together sponsored his second book, Majors and Minors, in 1895. This work came to the attention of William Dean Howells, who devoted a full and glowing page of Harper’s Weekly magazine to a review of it.

We Wear the Mask

We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,--
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should the world be overwise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.

- Paul Laurence Dunbar

After he and his wife separated Dunbar was lured back to Dayton by the possibility of being close to many of his childhood friends. Already weak due to tuberculosis, and seeing his attempts to speak out against the discriminatory treatment of African Americans in the poem “the Haunted Oak” and his novel The Sport of the God rejected by large segments of the public, Dunbar lived out the remainder of his life in the house on North Summit Street. A modest two-story red brick building with nine rooms, the Paul Lawrence Dunbar House was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1966. The surrounding Dunbar Historic District, named after the poet and author, was listed in the National Register of Historic Places on June 30, 1980.

The Paul Laurence Dunbar House, a National Historic Landmark, is in the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park. The University of Ohio has a Paul Laurence Dunbar website which contains poems and readings of Dunbar's poetry. The complete poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar is available from Project Gutenberg.

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