Paul Laurence Dunbar
1872 - 1906

Paul Laurence Dunbar, born poor and Black in 1872, was a man who turned his imagination into prose and poetry. His father, who died when Paul was 10, was a slave who escaped to freedom in Canada. His mother, also a slave, lived in Kentucky before the Civil War. He developed a love for literature when he spent evenings reading aloud to his mother, which she dearly loved. A classmate of Orville Wright, Paul was the only Black in his Central High School graduating class in Dayton. He was one of the first Black writers of his time to get national attention. In poems, he was able to tell of daily Black life, using the Southern Negro dialect. He published his first book of verse, Oak and Ivy in 1883.

As his fame grew, he gave readings before audiences all over the United States and in England. In all, he wrote 25 books, 15 essays, over 100 poems, 35 song lyrics, 24 short stories, nine musical shows, and four plays. When he died of tuberculosis in 1906, the world lost a true giant. His tombstone along the roadside at Woodland is overshadowed by a willow tree planted there. That tree refers to a poem by Dunbar called A Death Song. The first verse is on his stone, but there were two more verses. The second verse describes a lake that is now filled in. A stained glass window in the Dunbar room of Woodland Mausoleum shows the view explained in that verse.

A Death Song Lay me down beneaf de willers in de grass,
Whah de branch 'll go a-singin'
as it pass.

An' w'en I's a-layin' low,
I kin hyeah it is as it go

Singin', "Sleep, my honey, tek yo' res at las'."
Lay me nigh to whah hit meks a little pool,
An' de watah stan's so quiet lak an' cool,

Whah de little birds in spring,
Ust to come an' drink an' sing,

An' de chillen waded on dey way to school.
Let me settle w'en my shouldahs draps dey load

Nigh enough to hyeah de noises in de road;
Fu' I t'ink de las' long res'

Gwine to soothe my sperrit bes'
Ef I 's layin' 'mong de t'ings I's allus knowed.

Paul Laurence Dunbar