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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 108

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This is the grave of Paul Laurence Dunbar.

A pioneering African-American poet, Dunbar was born in Dayton in 1872 to former slaves who had traveled north from Kentucky after emancipation. He started writing poetry at a very young age, giving his first public recital at the age of 9. An exceptional student, he became the only black student in his high school. He started Dayton’s first African-American newspaper in 1890, even if it only lasted six weeks, which wasn’t so uncommon for newspapers at that time. He wanted to attend law school, but faced the double bar of poverty and racism. He worked as an elevator operator, earning $4 a week. Friends with Orville and Wilbur Wright, they printed his newspaper and helped his publishing career. When he wanted to publish a book of dialect, the Wright brothers didn’t have the ability with their press, but they introduced him to someone who did. His poetry and other writings gained him increasing acclaim. He was able to travel around for readings and get decent payment for it, although his penchant for extravagant spending when he had the money kept him in pretty frequent debt. He continued to publish widely, often to good reviews, sometimes to mediocre ones. In 1897, he was able to take a literary tour of England. He was involved in civil rights causes through this period. He briefly worked at the Library of Congress to earn a steady paycheck, but his wife encouraged him to quit and keep writing.

Unfortunately, Dunbar got laid low by an all too common fate at this time: tuberculosis. He moved to Colorado in 1900 for the dry air, but his marriage was failing at the same time. His wife left in 1902 and this led him to greater drinking, only damaging his health further. In 1904, he returned to Dayton to live with his mother, even though this accelerated his decline. Dunbar died in 1906, only 33 years old.

Paul Laurence Dunbar is buried at Woodlawn Cemetery, Dayton, Ohio.

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