Paul Laurence Dunbar

Paul Laurence Dunbar

1872 - 1906

Considered the first important African-American poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar wrote in a vernacular style in most of his poetry. He was equally accomplished writing in standard English, publishing traditional novels, short stories, essays as well as poems of this style.

Image: Paul Laurence Dunbar, sketch, public domain


Born in Dayton, Ohio to ex-slave parents (his father was also a veteran of the Civil War), Dunbar was encouraged to pursue an education through his parents' love of learning. He is responsible for starting the first African-American newspaper in Dayton.

While Dunbar's first volume of poetry, Oak and Ivy (1892), brought attention to his work with his ability to write well in both dialect and standard English, Dunbar did not achieve national fame until his second volume of poetry, Majors and Minors of 1895. Dunbar moved to Washington D. C. and attended Howard University following the publication of Lyrics of Lowly Life, which combined his first two volumes.

A good friend of Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass, Dunbar did not only publish prolifically in all genres, but he also wrote lyrics for the musical In Dahoney, which appeared on Broadway in 1903. The musical, which achieved great success, was a comedy written and performed entirely by African-Americans. Dunbar also collaborated with composer Carrie Jacobs-Bond.

His travels to England in 1897 brought him into contact with Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, an exceptional black composer, whom Dunbar influence greatly. In 1898, upon returning to the United States, Dunbar married the young black writer Alice Ruth Moore, with whom he collaborated on companion books of poetry. Dunbar took a job at the Library of Congress, but died tragically at the age of 33 from tuberculosis.

--Christie Finn

Songs & Song Collections BY Dunbar (entered to date)

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