Paul Laurence Dunbar was an African American poet and author born on June 27, 1872. His parents had been slaves during the American Civil War but had been freed by the time of his birth. Dunbar was born in Ohio, and his parents separated shortly after his birth. Dunbar began writing poetry as early as six years of age. He was an avid poet and started publicly reciting his poetry at the age of nine. His mother assisted him in his school work, and learned to read and write solely to aid her son’s education. She often read the Bible to him and hoped that he would eventually become a minister. Dunbar was the only African American student at his high school. He was a well-liked and popular student, and was the head of the school’s literary society, editor of the school newspaper and a member of the debate club.
In 1888, at the age of 16, Dunbar published two poems titled “Our Martyred Soldiers” and “On the River” in a Dayton based newspaper called “The Herald”. Two years later, he wrote and edited the first edition of a weekly African American paper called “The Tattler”. It was printed by his high school classmates Wilbur and Orville Wright, who would go on to invent the first airplane. The paper only lasted for six weeks but it gave Dunbar good exposure to the literary world. Paul Laurence Dunbar completed his high school education in 1891 and had hoped to study law. However, being unable to afford it at the time, he took a job as an elevator operator instead, drawing a salary of $4 per week. He continued to write poetry and asked his friends, the Wright brothers, to publish his book of poems, who in turn referred him to United Brethren Publishing House. His first book of poems, titled “Oak and Ivy” was published by them in 1893. He would sell subsidized copies of the book to passengers in the elevator in order to recover the cost of investment.
His work caught the attention of another poet James Whitcomb Riley, among others, who offered to put him through college. However, Dunbar wanted to focus exclusively on writing. His work began to gain popularity and he was invited to read at literary gatherings. In 1896, Dunbar published his second book of poetry titled “Majors and Minors”. Despite the successful sales of his books and his rising popularity, he was still under financial duress and was heavily indebted. His second book received positive reviews in literary circles and brought him national acclaim. He then published his first two books in collective form under the title “Lyrics of Lowly Life” with an introduction by the acclaimed critic William Dean Howells.
Paul Laurence Dunbar also ventured into writing short stories, novels, lyrics for musicals and plays. His first collection of short stories was titled “Folks from Dixie” and it was published in 1898. He wrote four novels, which did not receive positive reviews. He also wrote the lyrics for a Broadway musical titled “In Dahomey” which was a hit in both the U.S. and U.K. and ran successfully for almost four years. In 1897, Dunbar successfully toured the U.K. reciting his poetry at various events. Upon his return to the U.S., he married the author Alice Ruth Moore. However, within a few years of his marriage, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. His health began to fail and he separated from his wife separated in 1902. He spent the last few years of his life with his mother in Dayton, Ohio and died on February 9, 1906 at the age of 33.