Paul Laurence Dunbar: The Wright Brothers Friend

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in Wright Contemporaries


The 1890 Dayton, Ohio Central High School class was a most unusual class. Among its 28 members were two world-class prodigies who were destined to become world famous. One was Orville Wright, who with his brother, Wilbur, invented the airplane. The other was Paul Laurence Dunbar who became the first African-American to gain national eminence as a poet and the founder of African-American popular literature.

Orville and Paul knew each other well while they were in school. Paul, talented in writing and literature, would help Orville with his school assignments in those subjects, and in return, Orville would help Paul with math and science.

The accompanying photograph shows the Dayton Central High School class of 1890. Paul Laurence Dunbar is on the left in the back row. Orville Wright is the third person to his left.

Orville began a printing business while still in high school and was the first to print Dunbar’s writings including advertising flyers and tickets for poetry recitals. One was a neighborhood newspaper edited by Paul named the Dayton Tattler. Once Dunbar wrote on the wall of the Wrights’ print shop some humorous graffiti:

“Orville Wright is out of sight
In the printing business.
No other mind is half so bright
As his’n is.”

Later, when Orville and Wilbur were in the business of manufacturing bicycles, they gave one to Paul. It can be viewed today in the Dunbar House.

Orville never received his high school diploma because he dropped out of school before his senior year to work full time on his printing and newspaper business. Paul did graduate with a distinguished record, although he had trouble with trigonometry and had to retake the course delaying his graduation. He was a member of the debating society, editor of the school newspaper, president of the school’s literary society and also wrote the lyrics to the class song.

Dunbar’s Career

Paul obtained fame and fortune before the Wrights, but his future didn’t look very bright after graduation. As with most unknown artists, he couldn’t make a living writing poetry, and he couldn’t find a good job befitting his education, because he was black.

Undaunted, he found a job as an elevator operator in a downtown Dayton office building and turned it into an opportunity. He sold his first book of poetry, Oak and Ivy, at the age of 20 for one dollar each to passengers he met on the elevator.

Dunbar asked Orville to publish the book, but Orville’s printing shop lacked the equipment to bind books. Orville recommended he use the United Brethren publishing house in downtown Dayton. Orville’s father, Milton Wright, was a bishop in the United Brethren church and in charge of the publishing operation.

There is some dispute over how many of the books were published but the estimate ranges from 300 to 500 books. It is estimated that around 200 of these books still exist. In March 2006 one of the books appeared on Ebay with a starting bid of $2,000. The book is estimated to be worth $5,000-$6,000.

Gradually Dunbar’s reputation spread. His first break came when he was invited to recite his poems at the 1893 Worlds Fair. There, he met Frederick Douglas, the famous abolitionist, who was impressed with the young poet and gave him a job.

His second break came from attorney Charles Thatcher and psychiatrist Henry Tobey, who enjoyed his poems and arranged for recitations at literary meetings and funded the publication of Dunbar’s second book of poems, Majors and Minors.

This book came to the attention of William Dean Howells, a novelist and critic and the dean of late 19th-century American letters who was also a friend and advisor to Mark Twain. Howells’ praise of Dunbar’s second book in the Harper’s Review launched Dunbar into the big time among literary circles.

The two books of poems were subsequently combined into one book named Lyrics of a Lowly Life with an introduction by Howells and became a best seller. With Dunbar’s national fame now established, he traveled to London in 1897 to recite his poems. The youngster, born June 27, 1872 in a house on Howard St. in East

Dayton, wrote his first poem when he was only six years old, and recited publicly at age nine, was now an international celebrity.

After returning from London, he married Alice Ruth Moore, herself a writer and also a teacher and proponent of racial and gender equity. Paul settled down into a job at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

Tragedy Strikes

Then tragedy struck. He developed tuberculosis. His marriage dissolved, and declining health lead him to dependence on alcohol and depression.

He returned to Dayton in 1904, a year after the Wright Brothers famous first flight, and bought a home for his mother that is now the Dunbar House Museum. He new he was going to die soon. She took care of him while he continued to write until his premature death in 1906 at the age of 34. His mother, Matilda, who had been born into slavery, lived on to her 95th birthday. She had a great influence on his life. It was she who urged him to educate himself and encouraged his talent.

During his short lifetime, Dunbar wrote 600 poems, 12 books of poetry, 5 novels, 4 volumes of short stories, essays, hundreds of newspaper articles and lyrics for musicals. His “Tuskegee Song” was adopted as the alma mater at the school founded by his friend Booker T. Washington.

Dunbar’s mother and father, Joshua and Matilda, had been slaves in Kentucky. Joshua escaped and served as a Sergeant with the 55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment and 5th Massachusetts Colored Cavalry Regiment during the civil war. He and Matilda separated in 1874 when Paul was twelve.

University of Dayton poet, Herbert Martin, says that Dunbar’s use of Negro dialect spoken in slave days in some of his poems was controversial to some of his modern readers who believe the use of dialect as a detriment and possibly demeaning to blacks. Martin believes that anyone who cringes at Dunbar’s use of dialect must have second thoughts abut listening to rap or vernacular speech. Martin believes “Dunbar sees the humanity, not a stereotype. His ear was marvelously accurate.”

He wrote about the joys and sorrows of life, especially the difficulties experienced by African-Americans. Here is an example from his poem, “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 over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream other-wise,
We wear the mask!

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