Today in History

Today in History: June 27

Paul Laurence Dunbar

Portrait of Dunbar
Paul Laurence Dunbar,
circa 1890.
The African-American Experience in Ohio: Selections from the Ohio Historical Society

Paul Laurence Dunbar was born on June 27, 1872, in Dayton, Ohio. Although he died when he was only thirty-three, Dunbar had achieved international acclaim as a poet, short story writer, novelist, dramatist, and lyricist.

Dunbar was the child of former slaves. His father escaped bondage, fled to Canada, and returned to the U.S. to fight in the Civil War as a member of the Massachusetts 55th Regiment. At the time Dunbar's mother escaped enslavement via the Underground Railroad, emancipation was declared. His parents met years later and married in Dayton, Ohio, where Paul was born. From his mother's many stories of the South, young Dunbar acquired an understanding of Southern life and came to speak both Southern dialect and standard American English.

The Dayton area was a center of black religious activity. Dunbar attended the Eaker Street A.M.E. Church where he gave his very first poetry recitals. Nearby Wilburforce College boasted prominent African Americans such as W. E. B. DuBois among its faculty members.

Although he was the only African American in his middle and high schools, Dunbar was accepted by his classmates and served as editor of his high school paper and president of the literary club. He counted classmate Orville Wright as one of his best friends. Together, the two boys briefly published a newspaper, the Dayton Tattler (external link); their money ran out after just three issues.

Parade ground and campus, Soldiers' Home, Dayton, O[hio]
Parade Ground and Campus, Soldiers' Home,
Dayton, Ohio,
William Henry Jackson, photographer,
circa 1902.
Touring Turn-of-the-Century America: Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company, 1880-1920

Dunbar's parents separated when he was a child and his father lived for years at the Soldiers' Home. In 1891, Dunbar graduated from Central High School. Central was demolished in 1894 and a new school, Steele, was constructed at the southeast corner of North Main Street and Monument Avenue.

Steele High School and Soldiers' Monument, Dayton, O[hio].
Steele High School and Soldiers' Monument,
Dayton, Ohio,
circa 1900-1906.
Touring Turn-of-the-Century America: Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company, 1880-1920

Main Street, Dayton, O[hio].
Main Street,
Dayton, Ohio,
copyright 1904.
Touring Turn-of-the-Century America: Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company, 1880-1920

Dunbar worked as an elevator operator in the Callahan Building (spired building, above) on Main Street. In 1892, Dunbar published a volume of his own poetry entitled Oak and Ivy, which he sold to his elevator passengers.

In 1893, Dunbar went to Chicago with plans to write about the Century of Progress Columbia Exposition where he met Frederick Douglass, then commissioner of the fair's Haitian Pavilion. Douglass invited Dunbar to work as his personal assistant and to share the podium, supporting the young poet's efforts. During the fair Dunbar met a number of his peers and future literary lights including James Weldon Johnson, Richard B. Harrison, and Will Marion Cook, with whom he later wrote the theatrical piece Clorinda: The Origin of the Cake Walk. (See the two 1903 films Cake Walk and Comedy Cake Walk documenting this dance featuring fancy strutting, named after the prize awarded in the original contests.)

After the publication of Majors and Minors (1895) and Lyrics of a Lowly Life (1896), Dunbar's name became internationally recognized. During a trip to England, Dunbar met the African-British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. The two men collaborated on a collection of choral pieces entitled Seven African Romances and the opera Dream Lovers.

Returning from abroad, Dunbar settled in Washington, D.C., and accepted a position as a library assistant at the Library of Congress. He found the work tiresome, however, and it is believed that the Library's dust contributed to his worsening case of tuberculosis. He worked there for only a year before quitting to write and recite from his works full time.

Dunbar's letter
Letter from Paul Laurence Dunbar to Booker T. Washington,
January 23, 1902,
Booker T. Washington Papers, Manuscript Division.
African American Odyssey
Courtesy of the Ohio Historical Society, Paul Laurence Dunbar House State Memorial

In 1902, Booker T. Washington commissioned Dunbar to write the school song for the Tuskegee Institute. Dunbar wrote lyrics to the tune of "Fair Harvard." Washington was not pleased with the "Tuskegee Song." He objected to Dunbar's emphasis on "the industrial idea," and the exclusion of biblical references. In this letter to Washington, Dunbar defends his work.

Sheet music
"The Tuskegee Song,"
Nathaniel Clark Smith, music,
Paul Laurence Dunbar, words,
Tuskegee Institute Press,
Tuskegee, Alabama.
African-American Sheet Music, 1850-1920: Selected from the Collections of Brown University

By the turn of the century, Paul Laurence Dunbar was the most celebrated black writer in America. He wrote for the broadest possible audience, yet his reputation rested on his mastery of dialect verse which employed colloquial vocabulary and spellings that were, for the most part, African American. In his use of vernacular speech, Dunbar has been compared to Mark Twain and James Whitcomb Riley.

Dunbar published twenty-two books and numerous articles and poems before his death in 1906—likely the result of a combination of factors including tuberculosis, exhaustion in the wake of pneumonia, and alcoholism.

Lay me down beneaf de willers in de grass,
Whah de branch go a-singin' as to pass;
an' w'en I's a-layin' low,
I kin hyeah it as it go,
Singin', "Sleep, my honey; tek yo res' at las'."

Inscription on the grave of Paul Laurence Dunbar

The Smithsonian Institution

Smithsonian Institution
Smithsonian Institution,
Exterior of Smithsonian Institution Building, Washington, D.C.,
Theodor Horydczak, photographer, circa 1920-1950.
Washington as It Was: Photographs by Theodor Horydczak, 1923-1959

British scientist James Smithson died on June 27, 1829. He left an endowment "to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men." Some regarded his bequest as a trifle eccentric, considering Smithson had neither traveled to nor corresponded with anyone in America.

A fellow of the venerable Royal Society of London from the age of twenty-two, Smithson published numerous scientific papers on mineralogy, geology, and chemistry. He proved that zinc carbonates were true carbonate minerals, not zinc oxides; one calamine (a type of zinc carbonate) was renamed "smithsonite" posthumously in his honor.

An act of Congress signed by President James K. Polk on August 10, 1846, established the Smithsonian Institution. After considering a series of recommendations, which included the creation of a national university, a public library, or an astronomical observatory, Congress agreed that the $508,318 bequest would support the creation of a museum, a library, and a program of research, publication, educational outreach, and collection in the natural and applied sciences, arts, and history.

 Natural History Museum II
Natural History Museum,
Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.,
Theodor Horydczak, photographer, circa 1920-1950.
Washington as It Was: Photographs by Theodor Horydczak, 1923-1959

The collections and libraries of the Smithsonian have continued to grow through donations and purchases. Today, the Institution comprises 19 museums, 144 affiliate museums,  and 9 research centers throughout the United States and the world. The original Smithsonian Institution Building is popularly known as the Castle. Visitors to Washington, D.C., can frequent a variety of Smithsonian institutions including the National Museum of Natural History, which houses the natural science collections, the National Zoological Park, the National Museum of the American Indian, and the National Portrait Gallery.

The National Air & Space Museum, which exhibits marvels of aviation history such as the Wright brothers' 1903 Flyer and Charles Lindbergh's airplane, the Spirit of St. Louis, has the distinction of being the most visited museum in the world.