The Haunted Oak
Paul Laurence Dunbar was one the first influential black poets in American literature. He enjoyed his greatest popularity in the early twentieth century following the publication of dialectic verse in collections such as Majors and Minors and Lyrics of Lowly Life.
Born in Dayton, Ohio, to parents who had been enslaved in Kentucky before the American Civil War. After completing his formal schooling in 1891, Dunbar took a job as an elevator operator, earning a salary of four dollars a week. He had hoped to study law, but was not able to because of his mother’s limited finances. He was restricted at work because of racial discrimination.
Dunbar began to write stories and verse when still a child; he was president of his high school’s literary society. He published his first poems at the age of 16 in a Dayton newspaper. In 1890 Dunbar wrote and edited The Tattler, Dayton’s first weekly African-American newspaper. It was printed by the fledgling company of his high-school acquaintances, Wilbur and Orville Wright. The paper lasted six weeks.
Dunbar was prolific during his relatively short career: he wrote a dozen books of poetry, four books of short stories, four novels, lyrics for a musical, and a play. His first collection of short stories, Folks From Dixie (1898), a sometimes “harsh examination of racial prejudice”, had favorable reviews. Dunbar’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. Suffering from tuberculosis, which then had no cure, Dunbar died in Dayton at the age of 33 on February 9, 1906.