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Poet Paul Laurence Dunbar

Paul Laurence Dunbar was born in 1873 and died in 1906. Dunbar was the first major African American Poet in American literature and also the first AfricanAmerican poet to garner national critical acclaim. He was born in Dayton, Ohio to two freed slaves. Joshua, his father, had escaped from slavery and fled to Canada through the Underground Railroad, but he returned to fight in the Civil War. Joshua was one of the relatively few slaves who had been taught to read because his skill as a plasterer earned his owner extra income, and the owner had Joshua taught to read and do sums so he would not be cheated of wages in his outside work. He followed news of the impending war in newspapers in Canada and returned to fight in the Fifty-fifth Massachusetts Infantry, the second black regiment to be organized by the Union Army. He settled in Dayton after the war and married Matilda J. Burton Murphy, a widow who was already the mother of two; Paul would be their only child together. Matilda had been a house slave in Kentucky who was freed by the Emancipation Proclamation. She had had no formal schooling of her own, but she could read and taught her son to read (Rauch 87).

Dunbar attended school at Central High in Dayton and wrote poems for special occasions. He also edited the school paper and was elected a member and ultimately president of the exclusive Philomathean Society. Orville Wright was a school friend who later printed The Tattler, a newspaper Dunbar edited and published for the African American community. His first published poems were "Our Martyred Soldiers" and "On the River," both printed in the Dayton Herald in June and July 1888, when Dunbar was sixteen. In The Tattler, Dunbar published his first German dialect poem, "Lager Beer,: which was an imitation of James Whitcomb Riley's Hoosier dialect poems much admired by Dunbar (Rauch 87).

Dunbar's success as a writer set him apart from other blacks at a time when h...

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