Paul Laurence Dunbar—the son of Kentucky slaves—rose to fame near the turn of the 20th century. In his short life of 33 years he became the first internationally acclaimed African-American poet. With pen in hand he kicked down doors once closed to his race.

Dunbar had a profound influence on African-American luminaries such as Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison. In 1969 Maya Angelou titled her breakthrough autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings after a line in Dunbar’s poem “Sympathy.”

Dunbar died on Feb. 9, 1906. With his death date and African-American History month upon us here are four noteworthy names tied to Dayton’s great poet.

Orville Wright: Dunbar’s boyhood friend and business associate

Orville Wright and Paul Laurence Dunbar both belonged to the Central High School class of 1890. Success eventually found both young men, but while walking the halls of Central High they were simply two unassuming friends who, remarkably, landed in the same small class of 27 students.

Around freshman year, 1886, Orville and his friend, Ed Sines, formed a printing business: Sines & Wright. Orville’s older brother, Wilbur, soon joined the printing enterprise, marking the Wright brothers’ first foray as business partners. Having a close friend in the printing business allowed Dunbar to jumpstart the Dayton Tattler—a newspaper dedicated West Dayton’s African-American audience. The first edition features a curious headline: “Airship Soon to Fly,” with Dunbar referencing E.J. Pennington’s dirigible flying machine.

Callahan Building: A great Dayton landmark tied to Dunbar

After graduating from Central High School Dunbar faced the racism of his time. Unable to acquire a job reflecting his brilliance the poet served as a janitor at National Cash Register before beginning work as a Callahan Building elevator operator in 1891.

“Between elevator calls Paul read or wrote, composing poetry and short stories. He was often seen perched on his stool in the elevator surrounded by books and papers,” wrote Ann Honious of the National Park Service in her book What Dreams We Have.

The Callahan Building clock later became a well-known Dayton landmark. Later used by Gem Savings Bank and Reynolds & Reynolds, the clock will soon top a forthcoming Carillon Historical Park attraction known as the Brethen Tower.

Frederick Douglass: the famed abolitionist hired Dunbar

In the spring of 1893, the Dayton Herald contracted Dunbar to write on the Chicago World’s Fair: Columbian Exposition. While in Chicago, Dunbar found additional work in the Columbian Expo’s Haitian exhibit. Frederick Douglass, the famed abolitionist, author and orator, helmed the exhibit and hired Dunbar as his clerical assistant, paying the young poet from his own pocket.

James D. Pond: Mark Twain’s manager represented Dunbar

Dunbar’s star rose after a favorable review in the June 27, 1896, edition of Harper’s Weekly. Dunbar was traveling when the review landed and returned home to over 200 letters crammed aback the shutters of his front window. Following this review, Mark Twain’s manager, James D. Pond, began to represent Dunbar.



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