Biography: Paul Laurence Dunbar


Paul Laurence Dunbar was a poet and a novelist who wrote about the various accomplishments of African-Americans and promoted pride in the African-American identity and culture. Dunbar was the first African-American author to garner a significant nation-wide and global following. Much of Dunbar’s work focused on everyday African-American life.

The African-American Experience in Ohio, 1850-1920, [Public domain]

Quick Facts:

Name: Paul Laurence Dunbar

Occupation: Poet, novelist

Date of Birth: June 27, 1872 (Dayton, Ohio, U.S.)

Death Date: February 9, 1906 (Dayton, Ohio, U.S.)

Widely known for: The first African-American to gain national and international recognition as an author and novelist


So, who is Paul Laurence Dunbar?

Widely known for his short stories and verses written in the African-America dialect, Dunbar proved that African-Americans could write well. In fact, he wrote so well and so prolifically that he was able to make a living off even though he wasn’t well paid for many of his works. Some of his well-known works include:

• Lyrics of the Hearthside (1913) …
• Miscellaneous Poems (1913)
• The Heart of Happy Hollow (1904)
• Humor and Dialect (1913)
• Lyrics of Love and Sorrow (1913) …
• Lyrics of Lowly Life (1913) …

Dunbar’s Early Years

Brought up in Dayton, Ohio, young Dunbar grew up enslaved. Despite being enslaved, his
parents appreciated reading and his mother taught him how to read at the age of four.


At Central High School in Ohio, Dunbar excelled despite being the only black student in his class. Eventually, overstepping racial prejudices and social isolation, Dunbar became friends with many of his classmates. Dunbar later went on to become a class poet and the editor of the school newspaper.

Unfortunately, he was unable to move to on to college as racial discrimination was at an apex and he ended up taking employment as an elevator operator. This job, however, did not kill his passion for writing. At that time, he was unable to publish most of his works in newspapers, but Dunbar kept writing.

Achievements and challenges

He was only 16 when he published poems such as “On the River” and “Our Martyred Soldiers.” The Herald newspaper in 1888. “Tattler” was another early piece and it promoted the interests of the black Americans. This poem found a place in the African-American newspaper of 1890.

Dunbar encountered challenges getting the poems he wrote in African-American dialect published. However, with time and persistence, he caught the attention of a popular poet, James Whitcomb Riley who is widely known as the “Hoosier Poet”. They later worked together to start writing poems in both standard English and dialect.

Dunbar’s traditional poems called “true feeling and honest thinking” stole many hearts. Oak
and Ivy, his first book of poetry, was a remarkable piece. It was written in 1893. Two years later, Dunbar wrote Majors and Minors.

Dunbar’s Later Years

Dunbar’s later years were filled with grief. He was diagnosed with tuberculosis but couldn’t get access to antibiotics at the time. His wife Alice Dunbar Nelson couldn’t tolerate the needs of Dunbar’s condition. After struggling for a time, they eventually separated. After she left, Dunbar took to excessive drinking, and eventually became an addict. At some point while at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., the writer expressed discontentment with his written works. Despite his misgivings about his early works, Dunbar wrote to the very end of his life. On February 9, 1906, the world lost this great novelist and writer.

Dunbar goes down in the books of history as a writer who gave voice to the voiceless and one of the first writers to shed light on the plight of slavery and the conditions of African-American life at that time.


PUBLIC NOTE: The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the view of the Urban Intellectuals, affiliates or partners.

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