Paul Laurence Dunbar, the Black poet who was instrumental in making Black dialect an accepted literary form, dies in Dayton, Ohio.
1906 (Feb 9)
Paul Laurence Dunbar, the Black poet who was instrumental in making Black dialect an accepted literary form, died of tuberculosis in Dayton, Ohio, at thirty-four years of age. Dunbar had been born in Dayton on June 27, 1872, to the formerly enslaved Joshua and Matilda Dunbar. His father had escaped slavery and fled to Canada. But he returned during the civil war to fight with the Massachusetts 55th regiment. Although Paul Dunbar was senior class poet at Dayton's Central High School and the editor of the school newspaper and yearbook, his first career was operating an elevator for four dollars a week. By 1893 he had compiled a book of his verse and was selling it to passengers on his elevator. Two years later he published "Majors and Minors," which received a favorable review by William Dean Howells in Harper's Weekly. That review brought Dunbar national recognition. The following year, his "Lyrics of Lowly Life appeared". Many of these earlier works were published by Orville and Wilbur Wright, who were experimenting with printing newspapers on a homemade press. In the last ten years of his life, Dunbar produced eleven volumes of verse, three novels, and five collections of short stories. Critics generally agree that Dunbar's best works are his poems, particularly those written in dialect. Despite his Midwestern origins, Dunbar's poems deal nostalgically with the pathos and humor of the old South. William Dean Howells considered Dunbar the first Black to ably express an aesthetic appreciation of Black life through verse. Dunbar's biographer, Benjamin Brawley, observed that Dunbar soared above race and touched the heart universal. In a world of discord, he dared to sing his song about nights bright with stars, about the secret of the wind and the sea, and the answer one finds beyond the years. Above the dross and strife of the day, he asserted the right to live and love and be happy. That is why he was so greatly beloved and why he will never grow old.