Open top menu
Paul Laurence Dunbar’s Dayton

Paul Laurence Dunbar’s Dayton

By Anne Trubek

For years, I drove around the back roads and small towns of Lorain County, Ohio, near where I live, looking for old books. There are dozens of small antique stores. Most of the items for sale are modest by antiquing standards—a couch for $100; books and lithographs for $30. One or two shelves of books are usually tucked away in the back. I made some great finds on these runs—a copy of Grapes of Wrath signed by John Steinbeck, a rare first edition of Nathanael West’s A Cool Million. I bought first editions of George Washington Cable, Albion Tourgee, and Rebecca Harding Davis, writers whose reputations are on the bottom of what I hope to be a “W” curve. The thrill of bringing my nonpecuniary educational background to bear to find something of financial value kept me slightly obsessed.

Once I had them at home I was not sure what I was to do with my purchases, though.

Would I fashion myself into a noble book collector adding to literary heritage by preserving these volumes, or would I sell them on eBay, and become a literary entrepreneur? I did a bit of both, and discovered that old books by lesser-known American authors were not the most liquid assets (I unloaded that West first edition for far less than I thought it was worth; the Steinbeck went for more, and no one buys Harding Davis these days, apparently).

I have since stopped browsing dusty shelves in small town antique stores, though I still keep a shelf of books from my forays. My favorite book is a copy of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s novel The Uncalled. I found the small, dull beige hardback in the corner of a flea market cum antique store, sitting on a low, forgotten shelf. When I opened up the book to look at the price— $35, first edition, written in neat, penciled cursive—I found dozens of clippings pasted inside.

Paul_Laurence_Dunbar_in_oval

Paul Laurence Dunbar. Wikimedia Commons.

“Please tell me something about the life of Paul Laurence Dunbar, the Negro Poet.” Facing the title page was pasted a clipping featuring a picture of Dunbar’s mother, who is sitting in a heavy wooden chair with large armrests. She is wearing a black coat, a hat, and gloves, and is holding a cane. The story below her reads: “Mrs. Matilda Dunbar. Born in slavery, an 86-year-old Dayton mother is now living in the reflected honor an appreciate world is paying to the memory of her son, the late Paul Laurence Dunbar, Negro poet. In a library lined with her son’s books, Mrs. Dunbar often receives his admirers. Each June 27, Dunbar’s birthday, his mother holds open house for friends who hear readings from his poetry. The poet, who died at 33, would have been 60 this year, had he lived.” The title: “Basks in Dead Poet-Son’s Fame.”

The purple velvet ribbon used as a bookmark indicated, to me, that R.R. was likely a woman. And so I imagined her—a Daytonian and African American, I inferred—getting her scissors out after reading the newspaper and carefully cutting out Dunbar clippings, before grabbing her copy of The Uncalled and pasting them lovingly inside.

He is perhaps best known today as the originator of the line “I know why the caged bird sings,” which Maya Angelou borrowed from his poem “Sympathy” for the title of her autobiography.

This discovery sent me into a series of physical reactions, textbook examples of what we call emotion: adrenaline, heart rate increase, and misty eyes. But here is what floored me even more: there is a twenty-seven-year gap between the earliest and most recent clippings. That means that, over the course of twenty-seven years, R.R. took out her scissors, found her glue, and got out her copy of the novel with earnest devotion. There is so much history and love in this book that I wish I did not possess it. Should it not be someplace else where its story could be told? Where R. R. Gilbert’s own story could be shared to help us understand why she documented the posthumous legacy of Dunbar in that book for almost three decades? And it nagged at me, how this book ended up on the bottom shelf of an antique store amidst a few dozen children’s books from the 1940s, in LaGrange, Ohio, hundreds of miles north of Dayton.

It is obvious that R.R. loved Dunbar, and Dayton, something fierce. When I finally drove the four hours south from my home to Dayton in order to visit the Paul Laurence Dunbar House, I went with the feeling that I owed it to R.R. to go with the same reverence I found manifest between the pages of our copy of The Uncalled.

The Paul Laurence Dunbar House, run by the Ohio Historical Society, was the first state memorial dedicated to an African American. That means that the first time Ohio decided to honor an African American, it did so by creating a writer’s house. The home was dedicated in 1936, thirty years after Dunbar’s death.

Dunbar’s reputation was at its height right before he died. He was dubbed the Negro Poet Laureate of the United States, famous for his dialect poems like “Negro Love Song.” He gained much renown, taking part in William McKinley’s inauguration, working for Frederick Douglass and befriending Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois.

His reputation, however, took a dive around the time of the Harlem Renaissance, His dialect poems, seen as path-breaking earlier in the century, were lambasted as Uncle Tom-ish.

In Cleveland, just a few hours away from Dunbar’s hometown and where I live, many have not heard of him. He is perhaps best known today as the originator of the line “I know why the caged bird sings,” which Maya Angelou borrowed from his poem “Sympathy” for the title of her autobiography. However, few are aware of the reference, thinking Angelou penned it herself.

The years since Dunbar’s death have not been kind to Dayton, either. In 1906, Dayton was “like Vienna,” as LaVerne Sci, site manager of the Paul Laurence Dunbar State Memorial, puts it. It was the patent capital of the country, a town on the make. Orville and Wilbur Wright were there, and helped draw other inventors to the area. It was a precursor to the Silicon Valleys of the world, acting as an important site for the groundbreaking endeavors of scientists and engineers, particularly those involved with the Manhattan Project.

Today, Dayton is a struggling rust belt town searching for a new motto to replace “patent capital.” Its population has been declining since the 1970s. The city remains largely segregated. The per capita income is about $15,000 a year, and about 23 percent of the population has an income below the poverty level. And rather than spawn innovation, it’s more focused on preserving its past. In 2003, the National Park Service renovated the Dayton Aviation Heritage Trail, which commemorates Dunbar, as well as Wilbur and Orville. (Dunbar went to high school with the Wrights, and they were friends.) The Wright Cycle Company building and print shop have been restored along with the Wright Brothers Aviation Center. But despite what I am sure are high hopes, scads of committee meanings, and the best intentions of civic leaders, Wright-Dunbar tourism does not seem to be altering the fate of this dying city.

I arrived in Dayton on an early October day already suffering from the kind of inhospitable, gray fifty-degree weather that makes Daytonians dream of Daytona Beach. I was staying in one of the city’s few hotels, the Crowne Plaza, right downtown. I needed directions from there to the Dunbar house, so I asked the concierge. “The what house?” he said, looking surprised.

“The Paul Laurence Dunbar House,” I answered. “He was a poet who lived here.”

Still clueless, the concierge took out his map. I showed him the neighborhood where the house was located. He called over Bill, the shuttle driver, to consult.

It was only ten on a Sunday morning, and the house didn’t open until noon. So I asked Bill, who had never been to the Dunbar House, to drive me by it, so that I knew where it was, and then to drop me off at the newly opened Wright-Dunbar Aviation Center. “I’m not sure you want to walk from here to there,” he said as we pulled up to the house.

By “here,” he meant the ghetto. And by “there,” Bill was referring to the street just three blocks away, on which the Aviation Center sits, and which had been dandied up to look all oldtimey and quaint for the tourists. Just as he said this, we watched three black kids, maybe ten years old, run around the corner, laughing and playing. I told him I’d be fine.

Wikimedia Commons, Midnightdreary

Wikimedia Commons, Midnightdreary

Dunbar chose this neighborhood when he moved back to his hometown in 1904. He was thirty-one and about to die. He wanted to live out his last days in Dayton, and to ensure the wellbeing of his mother, who would outlive him for thirty years. At that time, Miami Valley, Dayton’s first suburb, was new, up and coming, and full of promise. Today, the neighborhood is neither this nor that: boarded-up houses sit next to nicely preserved ones with mums sprinkled around their foundations. The only open businesses, when I was there at least, were a pawnshop and a Subway restaurant. And the crisp blue banner announcing the “Wright-Dunbar Historic Business District” made me melancholy. I have seen so many of these banners in Cleveland, where I currently live, and in Philadelphia, where I used to live. I know all too well that happy, bright banners like that are heralds of desperation. They announce what I suspect will be yet another failed urban renewal project.

At these houses my faith is restored. There is purpose here precisely because they honor the overlooked.

Still, the Aviation Center does a wonderful job chronicling Dayton’s history, as well as the story of the Wright Brothers and Dunbar’s poetry. Unfortunately, few come to take in its completeness. The gift shop carries some Dunbar titles, but not many, because, according to the Park Ranger, the publisher’s minimum order quantity is more copies than they can sell.

Dunbar is more obscure now than when he was alive, and Dayton has shrunk in size and reputation. A double whammy. When I visit the lesser-known houses of lesser-known authorsI feel a compensatory responsibility to call attention to the house, to take some action, to redress the neglect.

At these houses my faith is restored. There is purpose here precisely because they honor the overlooked. And that they do so within a house becomes somehow suitable and honest, because houses are not, by definition, monuments. They are small, private places fit for someone whose reputation is diminishing and becoming ever more private. They are, in many ways, the institutional equivalents of R.R. Gilbert’s copy of The Uncalled. Precious yet forgotten: attention should be paid.

Unfortunately, there are few houses in honor of historically underrepresented writers, because they have been, well, historically underrepresented, and thus their houses historically underpreserved.

*****

“Don’t ever think that rap is something new. Dunbar put rhythm in words long ago,” LaVerne Sci says. Sci, the site manager of the Paul Laurence Dunbar State Memorial, is finishing a mesmerizing thirty-minute introduction to the life and works of Dunbar. I’m sitting in the auditorium of the visitors’ center with seven others who have come for the Sunday afternoon tour. Sci knows how to enthrall the audience. She performs. This is no dry recounting of birthdates and names. It’s a one-woman show. Sometimes her eyes shut as she tries to remember what to say next, but her monologue isn’t canned. She impersonates slave masters, parodies Dunbar’s critics, and compares Reconstruction-era African American families to New Orleanians displaced by Katrina (it was only a month after the hurricane hit when I visited).

Wikimedia Commons, Chris Light

Wikimedia Commons, Chris Light

Before she begins the tour of the house, she finishes her performance with one last anecdote: “Dunbar went to this restaurant to get a job and when he walked in the door he notices the waiters,” she starts. “They were all black. And as they were serving the tables, they were talking over their shoulders to each other about their romantic exploits. He notices the waiters would come from the kitchen through the swinging doors carrying their hot dishes and the hot coffee. They’d push that door open and they’d say ‘Jump back, Honey! Jump back!’”

Sci then readies us for a bit of call and response. “So we’re going to do his ‘Negro Love Song,’” she warns us. “Every time I do like this” (she throws her hands toward the audience), “I want you to say, ‘Jump back, honey.’ Let’s practice.”

Sci throws her hands toward us.

Jump back, honey, we mumble rather pathetically.

“Oh, no. This is the Dunbar house. Oh no. With enthusiasm.”

Jump back, honey, we try with a bit more life.

“Still not enthusiastic enough. Now let’s say it like we mean it. This is the Dunbar house,” she shouts. “Ready, and go!”

Then, she leads us in the chant. “Seen my lady home las’ night,” she sings, before giving us our cue.

Jump back, honey, jump back, we shout.

“Hel’ huh han’ and sque’z it tight.”

Jump back honey, jump back.

“Hyead huh sigh a little sigh,

Seen a light gleam f’om huh eye,

An’ a smile go flittin’ by”

Jump back, honey, jump back.

“Isn’t that cute? And that is so Dunbar.” Sci smiles, and ushers us into the house.

Paul is not the protagonist of the Paul Laurence Dunbar House. Matilda, or “Mother Dunbar,” as Sci refers to her, takes that crown. She is singularly responsible for the house’s existence, Sci says. Matilda made Paul into a writer, and then made sure he was memorialized. Sci is simply carrying on Matilda’s legacy, our guide asserts.

Born a slave, Matilda had two children by her master in Shelbyville, Kentucky. After the war, she moved to Dayton to live with her mother. In Dayton, she took on work as a washerwoman. In 1871, she met Joshua Dunbar, who had been enslaved as a plasterer on another Kentucky plantation. His master hired him out, and Joshua squirreled enough money away to buy himself a can of cayenne pepper. He used this pepper to throw the dogs off his tracks when he escaped on the Underground Railroad.

He was the only elevator boy in Dayton “who had Homer, Virgil, Shakespeare, and Keats underneath his stool,” Sci tells us.

Joshua made it to Canada. He taught himself to read while he was still a slave, and once in Canada he read newspapers, through which he learned about the Civil War. In 1863, at age forty, he joined the 55th Regiment of the Massachusetts Infantry. He was medically discharged, but then reenlisted as a cavalryman in 1865. He was medically discharged again, this time at the rank of sergeant, before he moved to Dayton.

Joshua and Matilda’s marriage was acrimonious, perhaps due to financial and emotional struggles. In Reconstruction-era Dayton, Joshua couldn’t find work. Their second child, Elizabeth, died when she was two years old. The couple fought frequently, and Joshua may have been physically abusive. They divorced in 1876.

Paul was a precocious child. His parents anticipated greatness from him from the day he was born. They taught him with both book learning—he learned to read by age four—and oral histories, telling him stories of plantation life—stories he would retell in his poems, the first one written when he was only six.

Matilda_Dunbar

Matilda Dunbar. Wikimedia Commons.

Central offered Dunbar a nondiscriminatory, nurturing education. But after graduating, he learned Central was the exception. No one would hire him. He ended up taking a job as an elevator operator in one of Dayton’s major business buildings, earning four dollars a week. While riding up and down he read and wrote. He was the only elevator boy in Dayton “who had Homer, Virgil, Shakespeare, and Keats underneath his stool,” Sci tells us. And he listened closely to his passengers. “If he heard a word he hadn’t heard before he would look it up. He would listen to the speech forms,” Sci says.

Dunbar also published poems while working his elevator job. In 1892, he was invited to give a reading at the Western Association of Writers’ meeting in Dayton and was the first African American ever to be so honored. There, he met James Whitcomb Riley, then one of America’s preeminent poets, known for his Midwestern dialect poems. Riley encouraged Dunbar to self-publish his first book of poetry, Oak and Ivy, in 1893. Dunbar sold it for one dollar, hawking it to his elevator passengers. The book was well reviewed, and Dunbar’s name started to spread. He traveled the Midwest giving readings. In 1893, he went to Chicago to look for work at the World’s Columbian Exposition. There, he met Frederick Douglass, then an elder statesman. Douglas hired him to help with his Haitian Exhibit.

Multiculturalism and identity politics are fairly new terms, but the struggle between assimilation and segregation has a long history in America. Paul Laurence Dunbar fought it during his tragically short life.

Dunbar was successful in Chicago—he met prominent blacks and whites who supported his work. But, when he returned to Dayton after the fair, he once again found himself broke. In 1898, Dunbar had married Alice Ruth Moore, a college-educated, light-skinned New Orleanian, and they moved to Washington, D.C., bringing Matilda with him. Dunbar got a job at the Library of Congress, but it was tedious, and the dust in the stacks worsened his incipient case of tuberculosis. He quit, but his health declined.

By the time Dunbar landed in Washington, he had published Majors and Minors. The leading literary critic of the day, William Dean Howells, praised it in Harpers Weekly. Howells’s review gave Dunbar the break he needed. Howells wrote that Dunbar was “the only man of pure African blood and of American civilization to feel the Negro life aesthetically and express it lyrically.” Howells praised Dunbar’s dialect poems, which he said “are really not dialect so much as delightful personal attempts and failures of the spoken language.”

Paul Dunbar’s success was always ambivalent, though. Howells’s rave was tinged with racism. Dunbar wrote many conventional lyrics, but his use of dialect was his claim to fame and his albatross. Many critiqued him for stereotyping blacks.

But, as Sci points out, Dunbar didn’t write in one dialect—he wrote in fourteen. He wrote in white dialects, and in dialects from all the southern states. White writers, such as Riley, Mark Twain, and Thomas Nelson Page, were gaining kudos for their dialect writing. But Dunbar suffered for his mimicry. He was called “the prince of the coon song writers.” He grew to regret his use of dialect. Debates over his dialect poetry overshadowed the rest of his writing: everything from his traditionally formal poems, his novels, and his plays to his operas and even his newspaper editorials decrying racism. “I didn’t start as a dialect poet. I simply came to the conclusion that I could write it as well, if not better, than anybody else I knew of, and that by doing so I should gain a hearing, and now they don’t want me to write anything else, ” he told James Weldon Johnson.

In 1902, Dunbar left Washington and his wife, Alice. What started an intense love affair, ended, suddenly, four years later. Paul decided to move back to Dayton with Matilda.

Multiculturalism and identity politics are fairly new terms, but the struggle between assimilation and segregation has a long history in America. Paul Laurence Dunbar fought it during his tragically short life. His story, better than any, raises the difficult question of how much we should, or should not, read with an eye toward the race, gender or ethnicity of a writer.

Today, the author’s face, race, sex, upbringing, and class all figure prominently in the buying and selling of literature, in how a book is marketed and, thus, how a reader engages with the book. Unfortunately, this embrace of emphasis on the biography and identity of the author can serve as a further ghettoizing of literature, as it did for Dunbar when he was alive.

A house museum is a handy symbol for the importance of biography and history to understanding literary text—to see the house is to understand the literature. There are risks, though. If the fit between the author and his history—or biography—is too perfect, then the house becomes a cage, and the author, a bird.

Paul lived in the Italianate brick house for two years. He set up Matilda with electricity, running water and a gas stove. The Dunbars were one of the few families in town with a telephone. One of the hardest things about explaining a historic house is contextualizing its class status at the time the writer lived in it. Though it may not seem like it anymore, the Dunbar House was well appointed for its time. Paul bought it after he had achieved success—and some money.

He spent his last days here very depressed. “‘Why did I have to pioneer this experience?’ he must have wondered,” Sci muses. But, she reminds us, “he penned his compensation.”

On the day Paul died, Matilda closed the door to Paul’s study. She never let anyone inside for the thirty years she lived in the house afterward. She received many visitors in those decades, including Paul Robeson. Sometimes they brought her money, and sat with her at the ornate dining room table, which today is elaborately laid out for four. All the dishes and all the furnishings throughout the house are original, down, hauntingly, to Paul’s toothbrush and mug in the upstairs bathroom, and Matilda’s needle and thread. Paul’s funeral flowers are still in the house, and they were the first things Matilda looked at in the morning and last thing at night.

In her will, Matilda left directions for how to preserve Paul’s effects. She was, as Sci puts it, “the first person to conceive of memorializing her son,” the first site manager, the first tour guide, the first woman to take it upon herself to passionately advocate for Dunbar’s legacy.

So Paul’s bedroom looks exactly as it did in 1906. It is not reconstructed, not set up “as if he were living here today.” Sci shows us the daybed he died upon, his Central High School diploma, his Remington typewriter. He spent his last days here very depressed. “‘Why did I have to pioneer this experience?’ he must have wondered,” Sci muses. But, she reminds us, “he penned his compensation.”

At the end of the tour, Sci asks us to sit in the chairs against the walls in the front entry room. She is about to send us back out into present-day Dayton, on a cold gray October day that has only grown bleaker during the time our small cohort has spent transfixed by her performance. In the dank entry room Sci leads us in another incantation.

“He was only singing. He sang of the human experience. Don’t think he fell short of anything. Paul pioneered a new direction. Now, let’s sing.”

She has us recite the poem whose text we read when we entered the house, engraved on a faded plaque erected by Boy Scout Troop 30 in 1921. It sits on the front lawn, and consists solely of lines from “Compensation.” This time she has us repeat each line after her.

“Because I had loved”

Because I had loved

“So deeply”

So deeply

“Because I had loved so long”

Because I had loved so long

“God in his great compassion”

God in his great compassion

“Gave me a gift of song.”

Gave me a gift of song.

This time we get it right the first time.

I love the Paul Laurence Dunbar House in Dayton, Ohio. I love it because it is full of just the longing that I am seeking in these small museums. It was preserved by his mother in a stubborn, lonely vigil to have her son’s reputation restored. Mother Dunbar outlived her son by three decades, an unimaginable length of time to a mother. I can trace a direct line from the house to Matilda Dunbar, ex-slave, through R.R. Gilbert and Sci. Because of this and because so few visit the house, because literary history has not been kind to Dunbar nor history to Dayton—for all these reasons I want to praise Dunbar, extol his house, sing his songs. 

 

Anne Trubek is editor-in-chief of BeltThis is an excerpt from A Skeptic’s Guide To Writers’ Houses.

3 Comment responses

  1. Avatar
    March 12, 2014

    Dunbar is well remembered in Baltimore where one of the most storied African-American high schools is named for him.

    Reply

  2. Avatar
    May 09, 2014

    LaVerne Sci shared Dunbars legacy to the world for over 2 decades.
    Great article, but a pic of my Mom too wouldn’t have been nice, I’m completely unbiased though :)

    Reply

Leave a comment