Prominent Local Figures: Paul Laurence Dunbar


April is National Poetry Month, so what better way for Dayton Unknown acknowledge this occasion, than to recognize our own local poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar?

Paul_Laurence_Dunbar_circa_1890
Circa 1890. Source: Wikipedia.

She gave me a rose,
and I kissed it and pressed it
I love her, she knows,
my actions confessed it.
She gave me a rose,
and I kissed it and pressed it.

Ah, how my heart glows,
Could I ever have guessed it?
It is fair to suppose
That I might have repressed it
She gave me a rose,
And I kissed it and pressed it.

‘T was a rhyme in life’s prose
That uplifted and blest it
Man’s nature, who knows
Until love comes to test it?
She gave me a rose,
And I kissed it and pressed it.

Paul Laurence Dunbar was born to former slaves in Dayton, Ohio in 1872. His parents divorced when he was young, and his father, Joshua, died when Paul was just 12 years old.

Paul wrote from an early age. At just 6 years old, he wrote his first poem. His mother, Matilda, learned to read and write to assist him with his schooling. Paul continued writing throughout his childhood, cultivating his gift of prose. In high school, despite being the only African-American student at Central High School in Dayton, Paul had many friends, including Wilbur and Orville Wright.

Paul Laurence Dunbar had a brief but productive writing career, with accomplishments including four novels, a dozen poetry books, four short-story books, a play, and lyrics for a musical. Although accomplished, he was not able to support himself and his mother on his earnings, having been somewhat of a spendthrift.

He had his dream, and all through life,
Worked up to it through toil and strife.
Afloat fore’er before his eyes,
It colored for him all his skies…
He said, “The tempest will be short,
My bark will come to port.”
He saw through every cloud a gleam—
He had his dream.

Paul Laurence Dunbar married Alice Ruth Moore in 1898, but the marriage started falling apart after his tuberculosis diagnosis in 1900. Doctors recommended whiskey to alleviate the symptoms, and they moved to Colorado for his health. Two years later, Paul’s drinking and failing health caused them to separate, but they did not divorce.

Paul moved back to Dayton in 1904 to live with his mother. He succumbed to tuberculosis in 1906 at 33 years of age. He is buried in Woodland Cemetery.

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