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Paul Laurence Dunbar was born on June 27th, 1872 in Dayton Ohio. His parents had been slaves in Kentucky before the Civil War. By the time Paul was 12 his parents separated.
By 16 he was already being published as a poet in The Herald, a local Dayton newspaper.
After completing his formal schooling in 1891, Paul was employed as an elevator operator, on a salary of four dollars a week. His hopes of a legal career floundered on a lack of funds and racial discrimination. However he wrote his poetry and tried to take every opportunity to publish. In 1892 he suggested to his employers, the Wrights, that they publish his dialect poems. On their suggestion he went to the United Brethren Publishing House which, in 1893, printed “Oak and Ivy”. Paul subsidized the printing of the book and earned back his investment in two weeks by selling copies personally.
In the late 1890s, Paul started to explore the short story and novel forms. His short career was prolific; he wrote a dozen books of poetry, four books of short stories, four novels, lyrics for a musical, and a play.
In collaboration with the composer Will Marion Cook and Jesse A. Shipp, who wrote the libretto, Dunbar wrote the lyrics for In Dahomey, the first musical written and performed entirely by African Americans. It was produced on Broadway in 1903; it then successfully toured England and the United States for four years becoming one of the most successful theatrical productions of its time. Paul's essays and poems were published widely in the leading journals of the day, including Harper's Weekly, the Saturday Evening Post, the Denver Post, Current Literature and others.
After returning from a literary tour of United Kingdom, Paul married Alice Ruth Moore on March 6, 1898. She was a teacher and poet from New Orleans. Paul called her "the sweetest, smartest little girl I ever saw". Alice was to become as famous as Paul during her life as a Poetess and short story writer.
Paul took a job at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. He and his wife moved to the capital, where they lived in the comfortable LeDroit Park neighborhood. At Alice’s insistence Paul left the job to focus on his writing, which he promoted through public readings.
In 1900, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, then often fatal, and his doctors recommended drinking whisky to alleviate his symptoms. On further advice he moved to Colorado with his wife, as the cold, dry mountain air was considered favorable for TB patients. Dunbar and his wife separated in 1902, but they never divorced. Depression and declining health drove him to a dependence on alcohol, which further damaged his health.
Dunbar returned to Dayton in 1904 to be with his mother. He died of tuberculosis on February 9th, 1906, at age thirty-three. He is interred in the Woodland Cemetery in Dayton.
Publisher: Copyright Group