This Day In History: June 27th
Writer and poet Paul Laurence Dunbar was born on June 27, 1872, in Dayton, Ohio. Dunbar was one of the first African American poets to receive national and international acclaim, and he served as an inspiration to several voices of the Harlem Renaissance.
He was born to formerly enslaved parents and was able to use their stories about life on the plantation as a part of his writing. While in high school, he published poems in the Dayton Herald and edited the Dayton Tattler. Dunbar performed well in school, but financial limitations stopped him from pursuing further education.
Rather than attend college, Dunbar took a job working as an elevator operator before completely focusing on a career in writing. After receiving an invitation from a former teacher, Dunbar was able to read his poems at a meeting of the Western Association of Writers. The poems impressed the audience and earned him a glowing review from fellow poet James Whitcomb Riley. In 1893, he published Oak and Ivy. The poems in the collection described the plight of the African-American community and also highlighted accomplishments.
Dunbar moved to Chicago and developed a connection with Frederick Douglass. Douglass promoted Dunbar and made arrangements for him to read his poems. By 1895, Dunbar’s popularity was increasing and his work was being displayed in national publications such as The New York Times. He followed up by publishing his second collection of poetry titled Majors and Minors (1895). The collection consisted of one section with poems written in standard English (majors) and another section written in dialect (minors). The poems written in the dialect were typically more popular, but the collection featured more poems written in standard English.
The recognition he received offered him an opportunity to go on a six-month reading tour of England. Once he returned to the United States, he worked as a clerk for the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. However, soon after accepting the role, Dunbar’s health began to deteriorate. Despite his declining health, Dunbar continued to focus on writing.
In 1898, he published his first short story collection, Folks From Dixie, and his first novel, The Uncalled. Dunbar remained dedicated to his work for the remainder of his life but experienced mixed reviews. Paul Laurence Dunbar died on February 9, 1906, at just 33 years old.