Paul Laurence Dunbar was born in Dayton, Ohio, the son of a Kentucky slave who escaped during the American Civil War and fought for the North with a Massachusetts regiment. His mother encouraged his early education and he went on to attend Central High School in Dayton where the future pioneer aviator Orville Wright was a classmate. Paul was to maintain a lifelong friendship with the Wright brothers. He showed early promise as a poet and published two poems while still at school, Our Martyred Soldiers and On the River. He was president of the school’s literary society and editor of the school newspaper.
His parents had separated while he was still at school and his father died when he was thirteen. Unable to afford university fees, he worked for a time as a lift operator before giving up this job to concentrate on writing. He published his first collection of poetry, Oak and Ivy, in 1993, The Oak part containing traditional poems and the Ivy part those in dialect. A second collection, Majors and Minors, followed in 1996 which was received with great acclaim. The following year he undertook a six-month reading tour of England and on his return worked at the Library of Congress in Washington.
He got married to Alice Ruth Moore, a teacher and poet from New Orleans in 1898. Two years later he contracted tuberculosis and he and his wife moved to Colorado. They separated in 1902, after which his health continued to decline, not helped by the fact that he had started to drink excessively. In 1904 he moved back to Dayton to live with his mother and died in 1906, aged 33.
During his life Dunbar published a dozen collections of poetry and additionally wrote four collections of short stories, four novels, a play and the lyrics for a Broadway musical, In Dahomey. His poetry, a lot of which was written in Negro dialect, is characterised by its sincerity, true feeling, colourful language and a conversational tone. He is remembered as one of the first African-American writers to establish an international reputation.