What Dreams We Have
The Wright Brothers and Their Hometown of Dayton, Ohio
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Chapter 4
Paul Laurence Dunbar

One of the clients of Wright & Wright, Job Printers, was Orville's high school friend, Paul Laurence Dunbar. Born and raised in Dayton, Paul moved away from the city after achieving international acclaim as a poet and writer, but he returned to his home town in 1903 when he was dying of tuberculosis. Paul's experiences in Dayton contributed to his becoming a ground breaking African American literary figure. Like the Wright brothers, the poet's rise as a literary figure owed much to his close relationship with his mother. She supported him in his decision to pursue a literary career and in his struggle for recognition both in Dayton and the world.

Strong family ties shaped Dunbar's early development in Dayton and his rise to literary fame. The family support that was so important in Paul's life was a predominant characteristic of African American families. In The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750-1925, Herbert G. Gutman studied the family life of African Americans both during slavery and after emancipation. He found that, contrary to modern perception of the slave experience, strong family ties existed during slavery and continued in the difficult decades immediately thereafter. The family helped to preserve African American culture and provided support during enslavement and poverty. Through his mother's family, Paul experienced the close knit African American family life that Gutman's research revealed. [1]

Matilda Dunbar
(Courtesy of Dayton and Montgomery County Public Library)

Paul was born in Dayton on June 27, 1872, at 311 Howard Street, his grandmother Elizabeth Burton's house. Paul's parents were both former slaves. His mother, Matilda Glass Murphy Dunbar, was born into slavery near Shelbyville, Kentucky, around 1844. She married Robert Murphy, a slave on a neighboring plantation, and they had two children. William Travis Murphy was born on February 12, 1864, in Kentucky, and Robert Small Murphy was born on August 1, 1866, in Dayton. Matilda, who separated from Murphy during the Civil War, moved to Dayton at the end of the war to reunite with her mother, grandmother, and siblings. Upon arriving in Dayton in the spring of 1866, Matilda worked as a laundress to support her family. [2]

Many of Matilda's relatives lived in Dayton, and it appears that they moved to the city because Rebecca Porter, her grandmother, resided in the area. Rebecca settled in Dayton in 1839, when Samuel Steele, an abolitionist from Dayton, purchased her while in Kentucky and then manumitted her. Rebecca worked as a house servant for Steele, living in Dayton until her death in 1869. Matilda's mother, Eliza Borden, moved to Dayton in the 1860s from Kentucky. A former slave, Eliza worked as a washerwoman in Dayton. Matilda's sister, Rebecca Borden Burton, who also moved to Dayton in the 1860s, married Moses Voss on September 17, 1874. She maintained close contact with Matilda throughout her life. [3]

Paul's father, Joshua Dunbar, was born in Garret County, Kentucky, in 1823. As a slave he worked as a plasterer or whitewasher, sometimes being hired out to other plantations for his labor. Joshua escaped from slavery via the Underground Railroad and settled in Canada. At the onset of the Civil War, Joshua returned to the United States and in June 1863 he enlisted in the 55th Massachusetts Regiment of Volunteers, Company F, as part of the U.S. Colored Troops. He was medically discharged at Folly Island, South Carolina, on October 28, 1863, due to varicose veins in his left leg. Joshua later re-enlisted with the Fifth Massachusetts Cavalry on January 9, 1864. He served with the Massachusetts Cavalry until October 3, 1865, when he was discharged at Clarksville, Texas. Following his discharge, Joshua settled in Dayton and worked as a plasterer. According to his Civil War records, Joshua was between five feet eight and ten inches tall with dark skin, eyes, and hair. [4]

Joshua Dunbar and Matilda Murphy met in Dayton and were married by Reverend William McKee on Christmas Eve 1871. In addition to Paul Laurence, they had another child, Liza Florence Dunbar, born on October 29, 1873, a year and a half after Paul's birth. [5] Liza died on May 30, 1876, of marasmus, or malnutrition, and she was buried in the city lot at Woodland Cemetery. Matilda and Joshua's marriage was short; by 1874, Joshua boarded at 310 Baxter Street on the West Side while Matilda still lived at 311 Howard Street. Matilda filed for divorce in January 1876, claiming that "the said defendant has been wrongfully and willfully absent from the said petitioner for more than three years last past." She requested custody of the children and the return of her maiden name. Although granted the reinstatement of her maiden name, she never used it. [6]

Both Matilda and Joshua placed a high value on reading and education, and both parents passed on this interest to Paul. In a 1902 newspaper article, Paul stated:

My mother, who had no education except what she picked up herself, and who is generally conceded to be a very unusual woman, taught me to read when I was four years old. Both my father and herself were fond of books and used to read to us as we sat around the fire at night. [7]

In addition, both Matilda and Joshua told stories of their lives as slaves and their experiences during the Civil War. [8]

Paul began his public education in 1878 at the Fifth District School located on East Fifth Street near Eagle Street. Matilda, often referred to as Mother Dunbar, and her children still resided with her mother at 311 Howard Street when Paul started school. According to the Sanborn Insurance Map, in 1897 a two-story brick building with frame cornice and a one-story frame addition on the rear stood on this site. The property also contained two one-story frame outbuildings. Quite probably, these structures post-dated the house inhabited by the Dunbars. [9]

At that time, African Americans residing in Dayton tended to live in small clusters scattered throughout neighborhoods that bordered the city's central core. Housing available to Dayton's African American residents tended to be bungalow-style homes and rented apartments instead of lower quality tenements. The neighborhood in which the Dunbars resided was part of the Haymarket area. Located near "Africa," a settlement of African Americans near the Canal Basin and Second Street, Haymarket was first platted in 1829. [10]

While near the African American settlement, mainly white households were located along Howard Street. In fact, the Dunbars were the only African Americans residing on the street in 1870. The Dunbars neighbors were equally divided between German immigrants and United States citizens of European descent. This was a very stable middle class neighborhood with the majority of residents remaining in the area for many years. [11]

Matilda moved from the family home on Howard Street in 1880 or 1881 to the south side of Magnolia Street west of Brown Street. This area was once part of Slidertown and in 1880 was platted as South Park. Magnolia Street, located near Deaconess Hospital, was a small street containing eight households. The residents were all lower middle class workers. One household was operated as a widow's home, which housed as many as four widows at a time. As a result of the family's move, Paul transferred schools before the third grade to the Third District School located on Ludlow Street, south of the railroad tracks. [12]

The Dunbars did not reside on Magnolia Street very long. Within the year they moved again, this time to 116 Sycamore Street. Mother Dunbar and Paul moved into a divided two-story frame house. Similar to an apartment building, the structure housed three different households in 1880. This neighborhood was racially mixed, containing an almost equal number of white and African American households. [13]

young men
(Courtesy of NCR Archives at Montgomery County Historical Society)

Matilda and Paul moved again in 1882, to a house located at 121 Short Wilkinson Street. The area was inhabited by about half African Americans and half German immigrants. Following the move, Paul again changed schools to the African American school in the Tenth District. While Paul attended the Tenth District School, the Dayton School Board, in 1884, began plans to integrate the school system to decrease operating expenses. Many African Americans successfully fought this action in the belief that integration would decrease their children's opportunities. [14]

Outside of school Paul was active in the church. On May 17, 1885, he joined the Eaker Street African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, located on the south side of Eaker Street near Perry. Religion was a major component in Matilda's life, and she hoped Paul would become a minister. In the late nineteenth century, the ministry was one of the few professions available to African Americans in which they could excel. Dreaming of greatness for her son, Mother Dunbar believed the ministry was a road to success for Paul. [15]

Paul's father, Joshua, moved to the Central Branch of the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers (Old Soldier's Home), now the Dayton Veteran's Affairs Medical Center, on February 4, 1882. Paul might have visited Joshua at the Old Soldier's Home by using the street car that ran up Third Street. While this is a logistical possibility, no evidence of any visits exists. On August 16, 1885, Joshua died of pleuro pneumonia at the Old Soldier's Home, and he was buried in the Dayton National Cemetery at the same location. His burial record did not identify any descendants, which implies that Paul and his father did not have a close relationship. [16]

During Paul's childhood, Matilda worked hard as a laundress to support her children, and all of them helped out by taking small jobs. Among their many jobs, Paul and his half brothers worked as lamplighters for the city until electric streetlights were installed beginning in 1883. When lamplighters were no longer needed, the brothers searched for other jobs to supplement the family's income. Both Robert and William quit school early and began working full time at the Beckel House, a local hotel, located on Third Street. In later years they both left Dayton, Robert for Cincinnati and then Chicago in 1887, and William for Chicago in 1893. Both of them remained in Chicago until their deaths. [17]

While Paul's brothers left Dayton in pursuit of employment, he continued to attend Dayton public schools. Both of his parents held ambitions that he would graduate from high school, and Paul was also dedicated to completing school. While in school, Paul developed an interest in literature, especially poetry. The exact date when Paul began composing poetry is unknown, although Paul stated that he began rhyming when he was six years old. In 1902, he described the circumstances leading to his interest in rhymes:

One morning at school I came across something by Wadsworth, and a gentleman living in Dayton happening to have a similar name, I at once concluded that the verses were written by him. This invested them with peculiar interest, making them seem very wonderful, and as I crossed the railroad track in going home I remember trying to put words together for myself that had a jingling sound. [18]

Paul began writing poems when he was nearly twelve years old and published his first poem at fourteen. He gave his first recitation, "An Easter Ode," at the Eaker Street AME Church Easter Celebration in 1885. [19]

Beckel House
(Courtesy of Dayton and Montgomery County Public Library)

Shortly thereafter he began reciting at assembly programs in intermediate school. Orville Wright was a student in the class, and the two met when Orville complimented Paul on a reading after an assembly. The two became friends and often walked home from school together. Paul's reverent demeanor during the assembly recitations earned him the nickname "Deacon" from his classmates. "Deacon Dunbar has very good health" read an 1886 entry in the personal section of Orville's first newspaper, The Midget. [20]

An intermediate school teacher, Samuel C. Wilson, encouraged Paul in his writing efforts. In later years, Paul singled him out as an individual who did more to foster his continuing interest in poetry than any other person. Wilson, a poet himself, offered Paul both criticism and encouragement, and Paul continued to solicit his opinions in later years. [21]

Paul graduated from intermediate school in 1886 and entered Central High School, located on Wilkinson between Fourth and Maple Streets, the following fall. Like other secondary schools in Dayton, Central High School was integrated. Though Paul was the only African American in his class, there were several other African Americans attending the school, including Paul's good friend Bud Burns who was a year younger. Paul later described his experiences at Central High School as "pleasant," and he reflected in 1898, that "I was the only Negro in the class and apparently popular. My chums encouraged me. My teachers encouraged me." [22]

Active in student activities, Paul joined the Philomathean Society (the literary club) in 1888, and he was elected president for the 1891 spring semester. In addition, Paul also contributed to the school newspaper, the High School Times, being named general assistant editor in January 1889 for the remainder of the school year and editor-in-chief in June 1890 for the upcoming fall semester. [23]

On November 6, 1888, the first joint meeting of the Philomatheon Society and the Spur Club, a girl's club at the high school, was held. At the meeting, Paul teamed with Aurelius Crown to argue the negative in the debate question, "resolved: that Shakespeare wrote the Shakespearean dramas." The debate was decided in favor of Paul and Aurelius. [24]

As well as being an active member of the Philomatheon Society, Paul was a frequent contributor to the High School Times. His interest in poetry was obvious, for he was never listed as an author of an article, but many of his poems were published in the newspaper. [25]

(Courtesy of Dayton and Montgomery County Public Library)

One of Paul's early poems, "My Best Girl," appeared in an issue of Tomfoolery. Edited by Dunbar's Central High School classmates Ernest Blumenschein and George Compton, Tomfoolery was a weekly handwritten humor magazine that cost ten cents per school year. The group only made one copy of the magazine and then charged a nickel to read it. In addition to Paul's poetry, another issue of the magazine included a cartoon of the Philomathean Society debating, "Which is the butt end of the goat?" In the cartoon, Paul, in a nice suit, sat attentive and with decorum while the remainder of the club energetically pursued the debate. [26]

Outside of school, Paul and his friend Randolph Tams joined the Knights of Pythias, a local fraternal organization, Gem City Lodge Number Two. The club met on the first and third Mondays of each month in clubrooms at the northeast corner of Market and Main Streets. As a result of a special Knight of Pythias drama program he attended, Paul along with some friends, in 1888, founded the Philodramian Club, meaning fond of drama in Greek. The members of the club included many of Paul's friends: Randolph, Charley Higgins, Bud Burns, Charles Matthews, Jake Payne, Ennis Hawkins, and William Shaw. The club members performed various plays, and while there were no female members, they did invite young women to participate when actresses were needed for various roles. [27]

Throughout his years at Central High School, Paul and his mother moved frequently. In 1887, they lived on the north side of Washington Street in the second house west of Perry Street, but they stayed there less than a year. In 1888, they moved to 317 West Washington Street, the first house west of Perry. One of the reasons that the Dunbars moved into these larger homes was so Mother Dunbar could rent out the additional rooms to supplement the family income. In fact, one of the boarders at the Washington Street house was Daniel Simmons who resided at 116 Sycamore Street with the Dunbars in 1881. [28]

Then, in 1891, Matilda and Paul moved to 818 North Linden in Riverdale, an area where few African Americans resided. The Dunbars' house was located near the Great Miami River at the rear of the lot. Dunbar named the house "Riverhaven Cottage." Riverdale began developing in the mid-nineteenth century, and in 1880, when the traction car connected Riverdale and downtown Dayton on the White Line, rapid growth began. The majority of the residents were white professional people, and the homes were small cottages or Queen Anne style houses. The streetcar ran near their house, and Paul and Matilda would use it to commute into the city. However, they often did not have enough money for the fare and would walk the short distance to town. [29]

During this time, Paul continued to write poetry, and his poems were first published by the Dayton Herald in 1888. The first poem included in the paper, "Our Martyred Soldiers," appeared in the June 2, 1888, issue. The second poem published by the Dayton Herald, "On the River," was in the July 13, 1888, issue. Paul was not paid for these poems, but he was encouraged by seeing his poetry in print. [30]

While Paul's interest in poetry and literature increased, his friend Orville Wright established himself in the printing business. Paul became Orville's client in December 1890, when Paul started a weekly newspaper, Dayton Tattler. Paul served as the editor and main contributor while Preston Finley was the associate editor. In addition, Chester B. Broady acted as the business manager, F.J. Mitchell as assistant business manager, and William Mason and Val Anderson as local reporters. Orville and Wilbur printed the assembled paper. Dayton Tattler cost $1.50 for a year or fifty cents for a three month subscription. Only three issues of the weekly newspaper, written for a primarily local African American audience, were released. The first paper was issued December 13, and the last on December 27, for Paul was forced to stop publication when the newspaper failed to make a profit. [31]

(Courtesy of Dayton and Montgomery County Public Library)

The financial ledgers of Wright & Wright, Job Printers, reveal that it cost $17.00 to print one issue of Dayton Tattler. The books only recorded the printing costs for the second and third issues, not the first, in addition to a $2.75 charge for a heading. Paul paid $15.00 towards the $36.75 bill. The ledgers also document a printing order for 500 Tattler bill heads amounting to $1.25. [32]

Also in 1890, an acquaintance of Paul's, Charles W. Faber, promised him a position with his paper, the Democratic Sheet, if Paul solicited fifty new subscribers. Faber also managed the Dayton Times and Evening News. After canvassing Dayton for six weeks, Paul received subscriptions from sixty people, but Faber reneged on his deal. [33]

While pursuing these other ventures, Paul never forgot the importance of an education. He was disappointed in the spring of 1890 when the principal at Central High School informed him that in order to graduate from high school he would need to return for classes the following year. Because of his extensive absences due to illness, Paul was forced to repeat mathematics. He successfully passed the class the following year, and on June 16, 1891, received his diploma from Central High School at the Grand Opera House, now the Victoria Theater. At the graduation ceremony, the entire graduating class performed "Farewell Song," written by Paul with music by F.C. Mayer. [34]

Following graduation, Paul searched for a job worthy of a high school graduate and dreamed of attending college. Instead, he encountered the racism and bigotry typical of his time. Frustrated with his failure to secure a job befitting a high school graduate, Paul accepted a position at The National Cash Register Company as a janitor. An 1899 newspaper article reported that in this position, Paul was one of thirty African American janitors at the company, many of whom, including Paul, joined a glee club. According to the article, Paul also wrote songs for the club to perform. His slight stature and inability to lift heavy boxes forced him to leave The National Cash Register Company shortly after accepting the position. [35] Eventually Paul found a position as an elevator operator at the Callahan Bank Building located at 39 East Third Street. The job paid four dollars a week. In 1918, Charles W. Dustin, a Dayton attorney, related how Paul obtained the position,

He came on a weekly errand to a student in my office, and one day applied for work. There was nothing in my control that I could give him except the position of elevator boy in the Callahan block, of which I then had charge as Mr. Callahan's agent. He took it, borrowed a law book, and went on duty. [36]

Between elevator calls Paul read or wrote, composing poetry and short stories. He was often seen perched on his stool in the elevator surrounded by books and papers. Dustin recalled that, "One day I found that he was trying his hand on a class of literature I did not suspect he had any fancy for, viz: wild west stories. He found there was a market for such stories with a Chicago firm... " After many attempts at selling both stories and poems, Paul sold his first short story, written in a western dialect and titled, "The Tenderfoot," to the Kellogg Syndicate for six dollars in December 1891. [37]

Throughout 1891, Paul gave several recitations. The Wright & Wright, Job Printers, financial ledgers document nine printing jobs for Paul. These orders included materials used in connection with recitals, such as tickets, handbills, and circulars. For example, in May, Paul requested 1000 dodgers, at a charge of $1.25, and, in July, he ordered 500 tickets costing $1.30. It is not known where these recitals occurred, although most likely they were in or near Dayton. [38]

With his salary as an elevator operator, Dunbar purchased a house in May 1892, from the estate of Mary E. Garst. Located at 140 West Ziegler Street on Dayton lot number 4833, the house cost $950.00. It was a one and a half-story frame structure, and both Paul and Matilda lived in this home. [39]

In the summer of 1892, Paul's former high school teacher, Mrs. Helen M. Truesdall, invited him to present a welcoming address at the Western Association of Writers meeting in Dayton on June 27, his twentieth birthday. Composing a poem for the meeting, Paul left his elevator just prior to the recitation and returned immediately after the conclusion. The audience reacted favorably and was very impressed, and the next day several people, including Dr. James Newton Matthews, a physician and poet from Indiana, stopped at the Callahan Bank Building to speak with the poet. Unfortunately, the elevator bell repeatedly summoned him away from the conversation. Despite the interruptions, Dr. Matthews stayed to speak with Paul and obtained copies of several poems. [40]

Following this meeting, Dr. Matthews included the poems in an article published in newspapers both in the United States and England. The article and poetry caught the attention of the Indiana poet, James Whitcomb Riley, who wrote an encouraging letter to the young poet. In a letter to Dr. Matthews, Paul thanked him for his article:

I want to thank you so much for that kindly, strengthening letter as for your excellent article in the Journal. I can appreciate it the more knowing as I do what little encouragement the papers of my own city give me. [41]

In the fall of 1892, Paul considered publishing a book. The positive response to the article by Dr. Matthews convinced Paul he would be able to sell volumes of his poems in Indianapolis, Indiana, which was Matthews' home, as well as Dayton. In addition, Charlotte Reeve Conover, a prominent figure in Dayton society whose husband, Frank, worked in the Callahan Bank Building, offered considerable encouragement each time she saw Paul. After selecting the poems to be included, the soon-tobe author went to the United Brethren Publishing House at the northeast corner of Fourth and Main Streets to discuss the possibility of publishing his book. Paul was told that without $125 to cover printing costs, the United Brethren Publishing House would not print the book. As he was leaving the building, Paul encountered William L. Blocher, a foreman at the publishing house, who noticed how distraught he appeared. After learning of Paul's financial predicament, Blocher promised to finance the publishing costs. As a result, Dunbar's first book, Oak and Ivy, was printed and ready for sale in December 1892. [42]

Paul remained intensely devoted to his mother throughout his life, and she, in turn, offered him encouragement and support with his poetry and writing. The two usually lived together, and when separated they maintained communication through letters. Illustrative of Paul's devotion to his mother was his dedication to her in his book:

To her
who has ever been
my guide, teacher, and inspiration,
My Mother
This little volume
is inscribed.

Paul's Dayton supporters promised to purchase the book prior to its release and continued to promote it after it went on sale. Students at Central High School pledged to purchase copies and printed a recommendation in the High School Times, the newspaper Paul edited while in high school. The article argued that at a cost of one dollar the volume would be a bargain even if a greater price was charged. In addition, teachers and former classmates from Central High School, as well as people from the Callahan Bank Building, vowed to purchase copies of Oak and Ivy. [44]

With the publication of Oak and Ivy, Paul's literary career continued to grow and opportunities for public performances increased. In the spring of 1893, Dunbar traveled to Detroit to give readings at various African American churches. En route he stopped in Toledo and met with Charles Thatcher, an attorney who had written Paul praising Oak and Ivy. Following the engagements in Detroit, Paul returned to Toledo to give a recital arranged by Thatcher. Still impressed with the poet, Thatcher, following the recital, wrote and offered him a loan of fifty dollars per year to attend college. Nine additional people in Toledo pledged to do the same, and Thatcher felt that still others would participate. In response to Thatcher's offer, Paul responded that he was currently doing well financially and, if possible, he preferred to pay his own way through college. [45] Later, in the spring of 1893, the Dayton Herald engaged Paul to write an article about the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. This was the second story that the newspaper contracted from him that spring, the first having been a story on the Central Branch of the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers (Old Soldier's Home). Knowing he would need to find a full-time job to support himself while in Chicago, Paul carefully considered the offer. Eventually he accepted, resigned his position at the Callahan Bank Building, and left for Chicago. [46]

Once in Chicago, Paul immediately began searching for work. He first found a job as a waiter, and when the World's Columbian Exhibition opened he worked as a washroom attendant on the fairgrounds. Eventually, Paul obtained a position under Frederick Douglass in the Haitian exhibit as a clerical assistant. In order to employ the poet, Douglass paid his salary out of his own pocket, not having the funds to pay Paul as an official employee. After he found steady employment in Chicago, Paul sent for his mother. She arrived shortly thereafter, and they lived in a flat in the same building as her son and Paul's half-brother Rob and his family. [47]

Paul and his mother returned to Dayton in November 1893. Facing the same limited employment opportunities as before, Paul returned to his position as elevator operator at the Callahan Bank Building. [48]

In a letter to Frederick Douglass on December 30, 1893, Dunbar described his troubles upon returning to Dayton saying:

the price of ever meager success is much calimony. The people in my town have never encouraged my aspirations, they have done all they could to crush me and now on my return from a summer of hard and honest effort I find a score of slander afloat concerning my sojourn to Chicago. [49]

While Paul struggled to succeed in Dayton and often felt negative reactions, a number of local citizens offered him assistance and support. Shortly after his return to Dayton, Charles W. Dustin, who was promoted to a judge in the Dayton Common Pleas Court, hired Paul as his page. In a retrospective article on Paul, Dustin noted that this was "the first time a colored man had ever been appointed to a position in the court house, except a janitorship." Paul considered becoming an attorney, and the Central High School newspaper reported that he had begun to study law. Yet, he eventually chose not to pursue this vocation. In sharing his decision, Paul noted that his desire to be a writer far exceeded his interest in the law. He hoped to "interpret my own people through song and story, and to prove to the many that after all we are more human than African." [50]

Paul continued to search for other employment opportunities. In 1894, he applied for a teaching position in Washington, D.C., at the suggestion of his friend Rebekah Baldwin, a teacher whom he met in Chicago. Hoping to receive the appointment, Paul asked his friend Frederick Douglass to submit a reference on his behalf. Despite his efforts, Paul was not offered the position. [51]

One employment opportunity that emerged in 1894 was an offer to join a traveling African American concert company managed by William Edgar Easton. Paul accepted the proposition and prepared extensively for the performances by writing new poems and practicing old ones. The entire operation collapsed when the company declared bankruptcy. Failure to achieve further success as a poet and his endless financial struggles took their toll on Paul, and in a November 7, 1894, letter to a friend, he alluded to suicide saying, "There is only one thing left to be done, and I am too big a coward to do that." [52]

Throughout 1894, Paul contended with financial problems and in one instance asked Charles Thatcher if, instead of money for college, he could borrow money to pay his mortgage on the Ziegler Street house. Also illustrative of Paul's financial problems was his apparent need to take in boarders to supplement the household income. There were four tenants at 140 Ziegler listed in the 1894-1895 city directory. Three of the individuals were listed as boarders. They were Edward S. Bundy, waiter; Jerome Haithcock, laborer; and Lewis Williams, laborer. Mary Moore, widow of William, also resided at the house, presumably as a boarder although this was not denoted in the directory. [53]

Paul Dunbar
(Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

While working at the Callahan Bank Building, Paul continued to search for other employment representative of his education and literary accomplishments. An opportunity arose for the author in May 1895, when he began serving as temporary editor of the Indianapolis World, an African American newspaper. Paul moved to Indianapolis and edited the paper until July when the newspaper's owner returned from his vacation. When the position ended, Paul returned to Dayton. [54]

While in Indianapolis, Paul began corresponding with a poet named Alice Ruth Moore. Paul first wrote Alice on April 17, 1895, to comment on her poem in an issue of the Boston Monthly Review. Included in the magazine was a photograph of Alice which, along with her ideas conveyed in her poem, attracted Paul's attention. [55]

Alice Ruth Moore was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, to Joseph and Patricia Wright Moore on July 19, 1875. She attended the New Orleans public schools and then Straight College, a predominantly African American two-year teacher's institution, graduating in 1892. At the time Paul wrote her, she was residing in New Orleans and employed as an English teacher. Paul and Alice corresponded regularly, and a romance soon developed between them. [56]

Another opportunity arose for Paul in July 1895, when he received a letter from H. A. Tobey, Superintendent of the Toledo State Hospital. Tobey praised Oak and Ivy and sent an order for several more copies. Tobey became one of Paul's greatest supporters and a life-long friend. In August 1895, Paul traveled to Toledo to recite for patients at the Toledo State Hospital and met Tobey. When Tobey first saw Dunbar as he stepped off the train in Toledo, he commented on the darkness of his skin. Tobey, questioned by his African American companion who was also meeting Dunbar, explained that he did not want Dunbar's brilliance attributed to any Caucasian blood he might possess. [57]

In 1895, Tobey and Charles Thatcher offered to sponsor the publication of another volume of Dunbar's poetry. The book, Majors and Minors, contained many new poems and eleven poems originally published in Oak and Ivy. Released in early 1896, the book was published by Hadley and Hadley of Toledo. Because Tobey and Thatcher covered all publishing costs, all the profits from sales went to Paul. [58]

While in Toledo, the poet gave a copy of Majors and Minors to the actor James A. Herne, who was in the city appearing in the play Shore Acres. Herne forwarded the copy to William Dean Howells, a leading national literary critic at the time. In the June 27, 1896, issue of Harper's Weekly, Howells favorably reviewed Majors and Minors. Howells found that in Majors and Minors, Paul was the "first man of his color to study his race objectively, to analyze it himself, and then to represent it in art as he felt it and found it to be...." While praising Paul as an African American poet, Howells believed that "if his Minors had been written by a white man, I should have been struck by their very uncommon quality; I should have said that they were wonderful divinations." This positive review made Paul an instant success. [59]

Immediately following the publication of Howell's review, Paul and his mother traveled out of town for a few days. Upon their return, they found over two hundred letters stuffed behind the shutters of their front window. The mailman, not having anywhere to deposit the letters, placed them behind the shutters while they were away. The letters contained responses to Howell's review and many requests for copies of Majors and Minors. [60]

In addition to sponsoring Paul's second book, Tobey and Thatcher arranged for a professional manager for the poet. Tobey and Thatcher, with support from Howells, contacted Major James D. Pond, a manager from New York who represented Mark Twain. Pond agreed to begin representing Paul when the poet traveled to New York in July. According to Dunbar's biographer Virginia Cunningham, Paul leased his home on Ziegler Street for seven dollars a month while he was away from Dayton. At the same time his mother was in Chicago caring for her son Rob and his family. [61]

In January 1897, Paul traveled to England for a tour. Prior to departing New York for England, Paul met Alice Ruth Moore at a farewell party given for him by Mrs. Victoria Earle Matthews. This was the first time Alice and Paul met despite their ongoing correspondence and blossoming romance since 1895. During the evening Paul asked Alice to marry him, and she accepted. Since there was no time to purchase a ring, Paul gave Alice a gold ring he wore that was given to him by his mother. This same ring was later used as Alice's wedding ring. When Paul wrote to his mother of his engagement, he mentioned that it was something he had wanted to do for the last two years. [62]

Throughout the spring, while in England, Paul gave performances almost nightly and established a reputation as a poet throughout the country. He stayed in England until August when he returned to the United States and settled in New York. [63]

After returning to New York, Paul traveled to Dayton for a visit and received a grand welcome. The Philomathean Society at Central High School held a reception in Paul's honor, and Charlotte Reeve Conover's literary club invited him to tea. While there, the poet was hesitant to meet Mrs. Conover's guests, for he had worked as a laborer for many of them. Upon being introduced, however, he found all the ladies to be warm and friendly. In the end, the tea proved a much more pleasant experience than Paul had anticipated. [64]

In October 1897, Paul accepted a position at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., at a salary of $720 per year. Although they were still engaged to be married, Alice remained in New York where she taught school. As in the past, Matilda planned to move to Washington with her son. Following his arrival in Washington, Paul received a letter from Mother Dunbar saying she would not be able to join him until the Hosley Trial, [65] in which she was a witness, concluded. Presumably she departed soon after. [66]

Paul and Alice were married in New York on March 6, 1898, at the home of African Methodist Episcopal Bishop W.B. Derrick from a local church. They decided to keep the wedding a secret since Alice's family was not enthusiastic about the marriage. Although Paul hoped that his mother would attend his wedding, she was in Washington at the time and was unable to be at the ceremony. Alice moved to Washington in April when the newlyweds officially announced their marriage. [67]

On December 31, 1898, Paul resigned from the Library of Congress and, with Alice as his manager, devoted himself full time to writing and reciting. This change led to frequent travel. During a trip to New York City to give a reading in May 1899, Paul collapsed from pneumonia. Alice rushed to New York to care for him, and his mother stayed in Dayton where she was living at the time. Matilda, concerned about her son's illness, kept in constant contact with Alice regarding his condition and treatment. In one instance, Alice wrote Mother Dunbar that on the advice of Paul's doctor, she purchased champagne and whiskey for him to drink to assist in his recovery. Later in May, Matilda traveled to New York to see Paul. Finding him still very ill, she committed him to a sanitorium. [68]

After Paul's collapse in New York, he became dependent upon alcohol to alleviate the pain and discomfort caused by what developed into tuberculosis. At the time, physicians believed that alcohol was a treatment for tuberculosis and a relief from the pain. Ironically, the prescribed cure contributed to Paul's declining health. [69]

Following his physician's advice, Paul-along with Alice and Bud Burns, Paul's childhood friend-traveled to the Catskill Mountains in June to aid his recuperation. At a follow up examination upon his return, Dunbar's doctor recommended a trip to Colorado. After stopping in Chicago for a family visit, Paul, Alice, and Mother Dunbar arrived in Denver on September 12, 1899. The Dunbars spent approximately eight months in Colorado, returning to Washington in April 1900. [70]

(Courtesy of NCR Archives at Montgomery County Historical Society)

Paul returned to Dayton for a recital on March 2 at Steele High School. The event was sponsored by the junior class as a fundraiser for an event for the senior class. Both Orville and his sister Katharine, along with a large audience, attended the festivities at the Steele High School auditorium. While the Dayton Daily News ran a story the following day on the success of the occasion, the March issue of the High School Times reported that Dunbar was unable to attend the event due to ill health. In his place, Mr. Ochiltree, who was writing a biography of Dunbar, gave an address on the poet's life. Following the entertainment, Paul was to be the guest of honor at a banquet hosted by the Philomathean Society at the Hotel Atlas. [71]

While Paul was unable to attend the program on March 2, he did speak at the school four days later. He gave a speech and then recited two poems. The students and faculty were honored when at the close of his talk he announced that he would donate a set of his books to be placed in the school library. [72]

In January 1902, Paul and Alice quarreled, and he left for New York while she remained in Washington. During their four years of marriage, the Dunbars experienced various arguments and separations as well as many happy times. The 1902 separation was final, and it was the last time the two saw each other. The exact cause and content of the quarrel is unknown. Following the separation, Paul tried many times to speak or meet with Alice. He sent her telegrams but never received any answers. In one instance, she responded "no" when he asked her to meet him at the train station in Wilmington, Delaware. [73]

After the separation and a stay in New York City, Paul settled in Chicago where he rented a furnished flat for himself and his mother. During this time, Paul continued to travel and give recitations, although disabled at times by tuberculosis. On November 12, 1902, Paul arrived in Dayton to give a recitation at the First Baptist Church. He stayed until Christmas time when he returned to Chicago. While in Dayton, he stayed, at least part of the time, with his uncle, Robert Burton, at his home at 1608 East Fifth Street. [74]

Paul and Mother Dunbar moved from Chicago to Dayton in the autumn of 1903. While searching for a new home, Paul leased a house at 118 Sycamore Street, two doors away from one of his childhood homes. Ezra Kuhns, a childhood friend and attorney, assisted Dunbar in locating a house, and Dunbar purchased lots 12448 and 12449 at 219 North Summit Street on June 3, 1904, for $4,100. Purchasing the house for his mother, Paul put the deed in her name. [75]

The two-story single-family brick home with a basement was an example of a typical turn of the century Midwestern middle class home. The nineroom house sat lengthwise on lot 12449 with a front porch facing Summit Street. The property was platted by Samuel Chadwick in 1887 along with the land in the block encompassed by Summit Street, First Street, Euclid Avenue, and Monument Avenue. Based on the assessed values of the house and lot, the house was most likely constructed in 1889 and altered in 1891. [76]

Prior to Paul's purchase, the property was sold at a sheriff's auction in January 1903, due to a decision by the Montgomery County Common Pleas Court. The announcement for the auction described the property as improved by a two-story brick house of eight rooms with a summer kitchen and bathroom. The property also contained a frame stable and all the necessary outbuildings. Paul purchased the property a little over a year later, and it most likely did not alter much from this description. [77]

The Dunbar's new home was located in a neighborhood adjacent to the Dayton Malleable Iron Works. The majority of the residents were employed by the foundry and many were immigrants from Hungary and Russia. Very few African Americans lived in the neighborhood and none of their households were located near the Dunbar's new home. The majority of the African American households were concentrated several blocks away near Wolf Creek. [78]

When he returned to Dayton, Paul suffered from an advanced case of tuberculosis. With the knowledge of his imminent death from the disease, Paul spent much of his time writing, producing many poems as well as short stories. Paul named the study in the house on Summit Street his "loafing holt." When physically able, the poet spent his days in this room composing and catching up on correspondence. In letters, Paul mentioned that often he was confined to bed and unable to accomplish much. [79]

Paul Dunbar
(Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Two changes occurred in the Dunbar household in 1903. The first was the addition of a Miss Mundhenk, who volunteered her services as a secretary for Paul. The only Miss Mundhenk listed in the 1903-1904 Dayton City Directory was Miss Lou Mundhenk, a sales lady, who lived at 16 West Maple. Secondly, a friend brought Paul a collie as a present. This dog, along with a chicken, was a constant companion for Paul. When Lida Keck Wiggins, a biographer of Dunbar, visited the house in the summer of 1904, the collie gave her a joyous greeting. [80]

Bud Burns, a childhood friend and the first African American physician in Dayton, served as Paul's doctor after he returned to Dayton. Bud was a frequent visitor at the Dunbar home, both as a friend and a physician. In July 1904, with Bud's approval, Paul traveled to Chicago to visit his relatives, and he stayed until sometime in August. [81]

Throughout his last years in Dayton, Paul fought a constant battle with the ravages of tuberculosis. In September 1904, his illness grew very serious, and newspapers throughout the United States reported Paul was near death. Matilda was not in Dayton at the time, but Bud Burns wrote her and offered assurances about her son's health. Bud believed that while gravely ill, Paul was not on his death bed as the news reported. Paul did recover, but he needed a dryer climate to improve his health. His doctors urged him to move to California or Arizona instead of staying in Dayton, but Paul refused. [82]

In December 1904, Dunbar was able to recite at his alma mater, Steele High School. The high school Dunbar attended, Central, was demolished in 1894, and a new school, Steele, was constructed at the southeast corner of North Main Street and Monument Avenue. With Steele High School replacing Central, the alumni of Central were declared and treated as graduates of Steele. At his performance, Dunbar was heartily welcomed as an alumnus and honorary member of the Philomathean Society. The society members greeted Dunbar with the club yell:

Heigh ho! Heigh O! Heigh O!
We yen, heigh O!
For the old Philo!
Heigh ho! Heigh O! Heigh O!

Following the performance, the members of the society adjourned to the literary hall and heard several more selections from Dunbar. [83]

As 1905 progressed, Paul grew weaker and less able to get out of the house or even his room. In January he fell and hurt his shoulder. At one point, Mother Dunbar sent for either of his brothers in Chicago to assist her in caring for Paul. Neither of them could leave their families, though, so Matilda continued nursing him with occasional assistance from a nurse. In many instances Paul would respond positively to his mother and not the nurse. For instance, she, instead of the nurse, would often administer his medicine. [84]

In June, Paul's family and friends surprised him with a birthday party. A friend called in the morning to take Paul for a carriage ride. When the poet arrived home, his friends greeted him with a surprise birthday celebration. In Paul's absence, they had decorated the house with flowers and his chair with purple cloth. The party consisted of supper and a birthday cake. [85]

Paul experienced a great loss when Bud Burns died on November 19, 1905, after a two week bout with typhoid fever. Bud, serving as both Paul's doctor and friend, had been a constant companion since Paul's return to Dayton. Paul never seemed to recover from Bud's death, and a friend noted that after the funeral Dunbar more often seemed discouraged in his fight against tuberculosis. [86]

Concerned about Paul's health, Matilda summoned both his physician and minister on February 9, 1906. Her prediction that her son was near death proved true. He died at 3:30 that afternoon. Dunbar's body laid in state at the house on Summit Street on February 11, and the funeral occurred on the following day at the Eaker Street AME Church. Many of Paul's friends and local dignitaries participated in the service. H.A. Tobey read one of the poet's poems and his pallbearers were Ezra Kuhns, Dr. Walter L. Kline, Albert Lewis, C.D. Higgins, Adam Higgins, Adam Hickman, and J.E. Deaton. In addition, many local ministers participated in the ceremony. Reverend W.O. Harper from the Zion Baptist Colored Church conducted the invocation; Rev. George Bundy, rector of St. Margaret's Mission, read from the bible; Dr. A.W. Drury, Union Biblical Seminary, presented the obituary; and Rev. Woodson, Eaker Street AME, delivered the sermon. Following the funeral, Paul's body was laid in the vault at Woodland Cemetery, and after the spring thaw, he was interred in a cemetery plot located near the Wyoming Street entrance. [87]

While Paul and his wife had not seen each other since their separation, Alice wrote to Bud Burns that she would like to see Paul before he died. Alice learned of her husband's death from a newspaper article and wrote to Bud, not knowing he had died, expressing her anger and disappointment that he did not let her know Paul was near death. J.H. Finley, the administrator of Bud's estate, wrote Alice to tell her of Bud's death. In the letter, Finley explained that had he been alive, Bud would have summoned her to Paul's death bed. [88]

Immediately following his death, discussions began regarding a memorial to Dunbar. The first proposal was to bury Paul in Library Park, now Cooper Park in downtown Dayton, instead of Woodland Cemetery. Matilda denied this request because she wished to be buried next to Paul, and this would not be possible if he was buried in the park. [89]

Davis W. Clark, a minister from Cincinnati, proposed raising funds to erect a memorial at Paul's grave. Clark established a committee that formed The Paul Laurence Dunbar Memorial Association. Judge Dustin, who had encouraged Paul when he was looking for employment after high school, was appointed chairman of the local committee. The committee unveiled the memorial on Paul's birthday in 1909. The memorial consisted of a boulder with a simple bronze plaque crafted by Tiffany that contained the first stanza of "A Death Song":

Lay me down beneaf de willers in de grass,
Whah de branch'll go a-singin' as it pass.
An' w'en I's a-layin' low,
I kin hyeah it as it go
Singin', "Sleep, my honey, tek yo' res' at las'."

The dedication included planting a willow tree at the site, an address by Dr. William Scarborough, President of Wilberforce University, and conveying the deed to the cemetery lot to Matilda. At the time the monument was unveiled, Paul's body was exhumed from the original grave and reinterred in its current location. [90]

The Reverend Edward Everett Hale suggested the monument be simple and that the balance of the funds raised by The Paul Laurence Dunbar Memorial Association be used to create a scholarship fund. Each scholarship awarded totaled $2,000. The first $1,000 given by the committee and the second by any school guaranteeing the scholarship. Following the establishment of the scholarship, Mother Dunbar suggested that her grandson, Paul Laurence Dunbar Murphy, Robert Murphy's child, be the first recipient. [91]

After Paul's death, Matilda continued to live at 219 North Summit. Visitors often came to the house to speak to Matilda about her son. She was a gracious hostess who never seemed to tire of talking about the poet. Dayton resident Ozell Bradford remembered, "She always welcomed you into her home, treated you beautifully, everything was nice. And of course she always talked about Paul." Several biographers of Dunbar interviewed Mother Dunbar and also found her very willing to share memories of her son. In his master's thesis, J. Cortex Cooper related Matilda's generous welcome into her home and the opportunity to visit Paul's library. [92]

Throughout the rest of Matilda's life, the citizens of Dayton offered friendship and financial support to her. As Mother Dunbar aged, she became hard of hearing, blind, and feeble. Because she was unable to take care of herself, many individuals offered support. Neighbors cooked her meals and assisted with yard work, and neighborhood boys tended her fires. Also, Matilda's sister, Rebecca, would travel from east Dayton each morning to care for the house, do the grocery shopping, and attend to her sister's needs. On April 23, 1926, the Progressive Mothers' Club hosted a tea at Edith McClure Patterson's home to raise money for Mother Dunbar. The funds were incorporated into an existing trust developed to assist Matilda with living expenses. The club hoped to use the money to hire a companion for Matilda, who lived alone at the house on Summit Street. [93]

Matilda Dunbar died on February 24, 1934, and she was buried next to her son in Woodland Cemetery. In her will Matilda bequeathed the home at 219 North Summit Street to her son, and Paul's half brother, Robert Murphy. She requested that Paul's library be preserved with all the contents remaining in place as a memorial to him. In response to Matilda's wishes that the home remain a memorial to her son, the state legislature approved a bill in 1936 that provided for the acquisition of the home at 219 North Summit Street. The state placed the house under the care of the Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society (now the Ohio Historical Society) to establish a memorial and museum to commemorate the life and work of Paul. [94]

In the years following Paul's death, Matilda maintained the condition of the house. At her death, the house appeared as it did when Paul was alive. Throughout the years, Matilda often opened the house to visitors interested in seeing the poet's home. At one time, a coin box was placed in Paul's study to allow visitors to donate, and in 1924 Mother Dunbar established a guest book. The tradition of opening the house to visitors continued under the auspices of the Ohio Historical Society when it dedicated the museum on June 27, 1938. [95]

In his many writings, from poems and novels to plays, Paul portrayed African American life in the United States and contributed to the growing social consciousness of the black population. Throughout his lifetime Paul wrote voraciously and the full extent of his output is still not known or published. In his lifetime, the poet became a successful African American writer who was revered throughout the world. He symbolized opportunity to African Americans who struggled to avoid the industrial arts training that was prevalent for his race as well as to all those who struggled to achieve their dreams despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

Symbolizing his success are the many schools throughout the United States named after Dunbar. This memorialization of Paul through the naming of the schools promoted many of the positive effects of Paul's life. In 1953, Geneva C. Turner in The Negro History Bulletin, wrote that students at Dunbar schools could learn two things from the poet's life. The first was to use any leisure time wisely and profitably. By doing this, students would be a benefit instead of a detriment to the community. The second was to follow Paul's example and pursue any creative urges. Students should use the poet's success in a field previously closed to African Americans as incentive to follow their dreams instead of what was prescribed by society. [96]


What Dreams We Have
©2003 Ann Honious.
Published by Eastern National

honious/chap4.htm — 18-Feb-2004