August 20 - Working Around the Clock

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On August 20, 1895, Douglass Brown sent a postcard to Paul Laurence Dunbar in Dayton teasing him about his occupation.  The words "City Clock Winder" are written on the front of the card beneath Paul's address, and numerous jokes and puns are crowded onto the back.

I hope you won't let Dayton get behind the times.  My clock needs winding please call.  Are you a sun or standard time man?  There is no hope now that you will ever run down.  I suppose you are a stern winder, that is the best kind. - Poem - Paul Dunbar is now the city clock winder.  Thank the Lord there is nothing to hinder.

Douglass Brown to Paul Laurence Dunbar, August 20, 1895.  Paul Laurence Dunbar Papers, Ohio History Connection (Microfilm edition, Roll 1).

Before electricity was widespread, many cities had an employee who was responsible for keeping large mechanical clocks running properly.  The job required a lot of physical strength and risky climbing into clock towers.  About a month after Brown sent his postcard, Paul wrote to his mother Matilda, who was visiting relatives in Chicago.  She had urged him to get a steady job, but Paul told her he was not suited to be Dayton's clock winder.

In the first place, I wasn't strong enough to do the work.  Some of the clocks would take two ordinary men to wind.  In the second place, I was expected to do all the repairing, and I do not count among my educational attainments a knowledge of the mechanism of clocks.  Do you suppose that if I could get something steady, I would not take it?

Paul Laurence Dunbar to Matilda Dunbar, September 21, 1895.  Paul Laurence Dunbar Papers, Ohio History Connection (Microfilm edition, Roll 1).

Paul was 23 years old and a high school graduate, but because he was Black he had few employment opportunities.  Before he became successful as a writer, Paul resorted to a variety of odd jobs.

Paul Dunbar has been an elevator-boy;  he has done rough and heavy work in the shop;  and he is now a Court messenger.  His poetic gift has been grudgingly recognized by a few of his fellow-citizens;  his color has been a barrier in the way of his material advancement.  But through every discouragement, the spirit of his genius has lived on;  and slowly but surely he is climbing to a deserved place of honor in the literary world.

"Save in His Own Country."  Unidentified newspaper clipping (Dayton, Ohio).  1895.  Paul Laurence Dunbar Papers, Ohio History Connection (Microfilm edition, Roll 4).

Following are the names of persons who have made application for positions in the next House of Representatives . . .

Door-keeper -- Paul Dunbar, Dayton.

"Reds and Blues."  Cincinnati Commercial Gazette (Cincinnati, Ohio).  November 23, 1895.  Page 12.

Paul L. Dunbar has accepted a position at the court house under Judge Dustin.

"Woman's Mite."  The Cleveland Gazette (Cleveland, Ohio).  July 11, 1896.  Page 1.

Dunbar was employed a few years ago as one of a corps of thirty colored janitors in a factory at Dayton.  The janitors formed a glee club, and Dunbar won his first success as a poet in writing songs for them to sing.  Later he secured employment as an elevator boy in a Dayton office building.

"Who's Who and What's What."  The Chicago Tribune (Chicago, Illinois).  September 8, 1899.  Page 6.

I knew Paul Laurence Dunbar as a boy, when he attained some local distinction by writing class poems and sundry articles for the High School Times.  Notwithstanding his attainments and genius, no suitable employment seemed open to him.  Times were hard, wages were low, and prejudice against his color was greater than now.  He came on a weekly errand as a student in my office, and one day applied for work.  There was nothing in my control that I could give him except the position of elevator boy in the Callahan block, of which I then had charge as Mr. Callahan's agent.  He took it, borrowed a law book and went on duty.  Between rings he read or wrote every minute.  There was no disposition to be idle.

"Birth Anniversary Recalls Early Life of the Noted Poet," by Judge C. W. Dustin.  The Dayton Forum (Dayton, Ohio).  July 5, 1918.