Did you know that Paul Laurence Dunbar – the famous African American poet, novelist and playwright – shares a historical connection with the Wright Brothers?
Paul Laurence Dunbar and Orville Wright attended Central High School in Dayton, Ohio. Even though he was the only African American in the class of 1890, Dunbar held key roles of distinction such as the class poet, president of the school’s literary society, editor-in-chief of the school newspaper and a member of the debate society.
Paul Laurence Dunbar, America’s first professional writer of African American heritage, was a classmate and friend of Orville Wright.
While still a teenager, Dunbar wrote and edited The Dayton Tattler, which was Dayton’s first weekly newspaper to promote the interests of African Americans. Orville Wright, who built his own printing press after an apprenticeship at a print shop, published The Dayton Tattler along with his own local newspaper, West Side News. When Dunbar was ready to publish his first collection of poems, he turned to the Wright family for assistance then solicited United Brethren Publishing to print his work “Oak and Ivy” in 1893.
As he became nationally and internationally known, Dunbar maintained a lifelong friendship with the Wright Brothers. They formed a bond – based on collaboration and creativity – that transcended color. In 1938, the Paul Laurence Dunbar House opened to the public; this house is where Dunbar lived from approximately 1903 until he died in 1906. The Dunbar House exhibits many of his treasures, including a bicycle which the Wright Brothers built for him. The Dayton neighborhood that served as home to Dunbar and the Wright Brothers is now known as the Wright-Dunbar Business District. The district’s current citizens and entrepreneurs strive to embody the innovative and visionary spirits of their neighborhood pioneers.
Ronnie Williams’ work “The Wright Homestead” shows what a meeting might have looked like with Paul Laurence Dunbar discussing his newspaper The Dayton Tattler with Orville, Wilbur and Katharine Wright.
In the 21st century, Paul Laurence Dunbar is recognized as one of the most influential Black poets in American literature. Across the United States, banks, hospitals, schools and other institutions bear his name as a tribute to his enduring legacy. His work captures the strength and struggles of African Americans – then and now. Some of his famous works include “Sympathy,” which inspired Maya Angelou to title her 1969 autobiography “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” and “We Wear the Mask,” with its memorable opening lines: “We wear the mask that grins and lies, It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes."
For more details on the life and poetic works of Paul Laurence Dunbar, visit the Poetry Foundation and Dayton Aviation Heritage sites.
The Paul Laurence Dunbar House is part of the National Park Service’s Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park.