A Literary Genius Commemorated at an Aviation Stronghold

Katherine RivardNPF Blog
Paul Laurence Dunbar Portrait ca. 1890-1900
Courtesy of the Ohio History Connection

When you think of great African American poets, which ones immediately come to mind? Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou? Or perhaps even Chance the Rapper? The Midwest can claim to have nurtured some of our nation’s most influential writers, including Paul Laurence Dunbar.

As the name suggests, Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park commemorates the history of the Wright brothers and the invention of the airplane. However, the park also preserves the legacy of Paul Laurence Dunbar — a poetic genius, who also happened to be one of Orville Wright’s high school classmates.

Born in 1872, the son of former slaves, Dunbar attended Dayton’s public schools throughout his life, graduating in 1890 as the only African American in his high school. Dunbar was unable to continue his education due to lack of finances, instead securing a position as an elevator operator, writing short stories and poems in his free time.

His reputation began to spread throughout the Midwest after a former teacher invited Dunbar to speak at a writer’s convention. He continued to write, earning praise from others in the literary world, including Frederick Douglass and William Dean Howells, a prominent literary critic of the time. 

Dunbar went on to accept a position as a research assistant at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., but resigned from the job due to a combination of the growing success of his writing career and his deteriorating health.

Paul Laurence Dunbar
Courtesy of the Ohio History Connection

In 1898, he eloped with Alice Ruth Moore, a teacher, and fellow poet. He continued to write and publish books that were widely acclaimed but discovered that he had tuberculosis in 1900. In an age when the diagnosis had no treatment, Dunbar turned to the bottle. Though his reputation caught the attention of another notable Buckeye – President William McKinley – and earned him an invitation to ride in the president’s inaugural parade in 1901, his excessive drinking and tumultuous relationship with Alice took its toll. The couple separated in 1902 and Dunbar returned home to Ohio.

Dunbar died on February 9, 1906, following a six-year battle with tuberculosis. He was only 33 years old.

We remember Paul Laurence Dunbar as having set the stage for the Harlem Renaissance, inspiring such writers as Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes. His writings captured the ambitions, hopes, and dreams of African Americans of the time.

Dunbar’s work reverberated beyond the poetry realm, reaching into the world of novels, short stories, articles, and even lyrics for musicals.

Today, you can learn about his life and legacy at the Dunbar House in the park. He purchased and shared the house with his mother in 1904, until he drew his last breath in 1906.

Paul Laurence Dunbar House
NPS Photo / Tom Engberg

Tours take place each weekend, and there are additional resources at the visitor center located around the corner from the house. Here you can watch a movie, see artifacts, or explore exhibits all dedicated to Dunbar’s life and works.

Though Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park may be considered a lesser-known site of the National Park System, it’s important to remember the many stories the park interprets. Beyond the story of the birth of aviation, it preserves the legacy of an icon whose ingenuity with words inspired a movement. Experience it for yourself and celebrate the story of a literary giant when you #FindYourPark at this gem in Ohio. 

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