“Poeta nascitur, non fit,” the latin proverb which means “a poet is born, not made” accurately describes Paul Laurence Dunbar, one of the first African American poets to gain national recognition. In 1996, 100 years after Dunbar’s first appearance in Washington, D.C., the Academy of American Poets designated April as National Poetry Month. It is a fitting observation of both the month and Dunbar, that Morgan State University, in Baltimore, Maryland is presenting “Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow,” an opera that traces the tempestuous romance of America’s most noted African American literary couple; Dunbar, the poet, novelist, and playwright, and his wife, Alice Ruth Moore, an educator and also a poet. Drawing on a variety of love letters, diaries, journals, and autobiographies, Dunbar and Moore’s tumultuous affair is dramatized from a courtship conducted almost entirely through letters and an elopement brought on by Dunbar’s brutal, drunken rape of Moore, through their passionate marriage and its eventual dissolution in 1902.
Paul Laurence Dunbar was born in Dayton, Ohio on June 27, 1872 to former slaves Joshua Dunbar and Matilda Glass Murphy. Joshua had escaped slavery in Garret County, Kentucky via the Underground Railroad and settled in Canada. He returned to the United States at the start of the Civil War and enlisted in the 55th Massachusetts Regiment of Volunteers, Company F, as part of the United States Colored Troops. Following a medical discharge in 1863, he enlisted in the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry. Upon his discharge in 1865, Joshua settled in Dayton, Ohio, where he met and married Matilda Murphy in 1871. Paul experienced two tragedies in his childhood: The death of his sister, Liza Florence Dunbar as a young child in 1876, and the divorce of his parents that same year. Paul remained with his mother, experiencing years of hardship, bouncing around from house to house and school to school. In 1885, as a young teenager, he joined the Eaker Street African Methodist Episcopal Church, where he began to blossom, giving his first recitation, an “Easter Ode.” Soon afterwards he began writing and reciting poems at assembly programs in school.
However difficult Paul’s family life was, it is clear that his family experiences set the foundation for his future greatness. Both parents shared stories of their lives as former slaves and experiences during the Civil War with him. Although they were not considered formally educated, they placed a high value on reading and obtaining a solid education. His parents were fond of books and would read to them as they sat around the fireplace in the evening. Matilda taught Paul to read when he was four years old.
The year 1888 was a busy one for Paul: He continued to write poetry and his poems were first published by the Dayton Herald. In addition, Paul and seven of his friends formed the Philodramian Club, which meant “fond of drama” in Greek. The idea was born from Paul and a friend’s membership in the Knights of Pythias, a local fraternal organization that at times conducted drama programs. The Philodramian Club performed various plays and was an exclusively male-only club, but women could act when necessary in various roles. He was also an active member of the Philomethian Club and a frequent contributor to the High School Times.
As Paul’s interest in poetry and literature increased, his close friend and classmate Orville Wright, of the famed Wright Brothers, established a printing business, which aided Paul in his early publishing career. Paul started the weekly African American newspaper, The Dayton Tattler, where he served as the editor and main contributor. Orville and Wilbur Wright printed and assembled the paper, which cost $1.50 for a yearly subscription. Only three issues were released.
Paul graduated from Central High School in Dayton, Ohio on June 16, 1891 and accepted a job as an elevator operator. In 1893, Dunbar self-published a collection of poems called Oak and Ivy, which he sold to elevator patrons to support the publishing costs. That same year, The Dayton Herald engaged Paul to write an article about the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Once in Chicago, he worked first as a waiter and then as a washroom attendant at the World’s Columbian Exhibition. He eventually obtained a position as clerical assistant to Frederick Douglass, who paid the young poet out of his own pocket. Douglass praised Dunbar, calling him “the most promising young colored man in America.” Upon Douglass’ death in 1895, Dunbar penned a magnificent poem in his honor.
In October 1896, Dunbar made his first public appearance in the District of Columbia. The Washington Post said Dunbar had a “deep, musical voice and a natural style of elocution.” Featured in this article is an 1896 program from his second appearance in the District of Columbia at the 15th Street Presbyterian Church, a church for the culturally elite. He was assisted by The Selika Quartet, which consisted of local prominent musicians.
If all of this excites you, head to Washington, D.C. and take a picture in front of the historic home at 1934 Fourth Street, N.W., where Paul and Alice Dunbar lived from 1898-1902.