On June 24, 1893, a review of Paul Laurence Dunbar's first volume of poetry, Oak and Ivy, appeared in a Chicago newspaper.
"Oak and Ivy" by Paul Dunbar is a small volume of poems from the publishing house of the United Brethren, Dayton, Ohio. The poems are by a young colored man, some of them faulty in their poetic measure, and yet withal so musical and true to nature as to deserve commendation. The sentiment is excellent. The author finds his themes all about him, and the simplicity of his poems is among their largest merit.
"Current Literature." The Daily Inter Ocean (Chicago, Illinois). June 24, 1893. Page 10.
The following year, a Louisville paper mentioned Oak and Ivy, which contained both standard English poems and verses in Black and Midwestern dialect.
There is a pretty little volume called "Oak and Ivy," by Paul Dunbar, Dayton, O., which deserves the palm. He excels, it seems, in just that line which the negro poet might have been expected to specially affect, but which he usually leaves to the white "dialect" writers. This man sings "in divers tones," and never out of tune.
"Poesy of Negroes." The Courier-Journal (Louisville, Kentucky). August 5, 1894. Page 15.
Oak and Ivy was a self-published book, so Paul was expected to pay the United Brethren Publishing House in advance to have it printed. He was employed in a low-wage job as an elevator operator and didn't have enough money. But as Paul's mother Matilda recalled, William Blocher, superintendent of the manufacturing department, made an exception.
Paul asked how much it would cost to have his little book published. He was told it would cost him $125. Of course, Paul didn't have it and he sadly came out of the publishing house, though not discouraged. There Mr. William Blocher saw him coming out and said, "What is the matter, young man?" Paul told him his sorrowful story. "Give me that material and I will get it published for you before the holidays," said Mr. Blocher. Paul's very soul was filled with glee and he came home thanking and praising God. One bitter cold morning when a heavy snow was on the ground, a knock was heard at the door. I opened the door and in came a man with a big box. Paul came in and I showed him the box. He opened it and first looked at the books, then at me. We stared at the books and I was so happy. It was the first appearance of "Oak and Ivy." In two weeks' time Paul sold enough of his books to repay Mr. Blocher. "This young man is a great poet," said Mr. Blocher as he retained several copies of the book for himself.
"Mrs. Dunbar Pays Tribute to Mr. Blocher," by Kenton J. Jackson. The Dayton Forum (Dayton, Ohio). May 30, 1930.
He had collected a number of his poems under the title of "Oak and Ivy," and now endeavored to arrange with a Dayton firm for their publication in book form. An advance of $100 was at first demanded, but upon consideration, the publisher agreed to wait for his compensation until the poems were sold. They were brought out accordingly and the author, becoming his own agent, offered his wares to those [elevator passengers] he brought up and down. At the end of two weeks the whole edition of 1000 volumes was disposed of.
"Won Success in Rapid Strides," by Gilberta S. Whittle. The Detroit Free Press (Detroit, Michigan). January 5, 1902. Page C3.
According to the 1880 U. S. Census, Blocher was a neighbor of Paul's father, Joshua Dunbar. Paul's name appeared alongside Joshua's on the census, even though Matilda had legal custody of him after their divorce in 1876.
477 Fourth Street
Blocher W. L. White Single Male 27 Printer
481 Fourth Street
Dunbar Jos Black Male 64 Divorced Laborer
Paul Black Male 7
1880 United States Federal Census. City of Dayton, Montgomery County, Ohio. John F. Edgar, enumerator. June 12, 1880.
Even near the end of his life, Paul remembered the favor that Blocher did for him. The dedication page to the poetry book Joggin' Erlong (published in 1906) reads: "To my friend William L. Blocher who aided me financially in the publication of my first book 'Oak and Ivy.'"