October 12 - The Job Has Its Ups and Downs

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On October 12, 1892, Paul Laurence Dunbar in Dayton wrote to his friend James Newton Matthews in Mason, Illinois, about his unpleasant job.  Paul was 20 years old and working as an elevator operator in the Callahan Building, Dayton's first high rise.

Your letter found me still chained to the ropes of my dingy elevator;  but it came like a ray of light into the darkness of my discouragement.  There have been many things to encourage me, but the incongeniality of my work and surroundings cannot but have a depressing effect.

Paul Laurence Dunbar to James Newton Matthews, October 12, 1892.  Paul Laurence Dunbar Papers, Ohio History Connection (Microfilm edition, Roll 1).

The Callahan Building is a beautiful six-story sandstone front, which is just being completed at Third and Main Streets in Dayton, where until recently stood an old two-story frame shanty.

"Chimney Corner."  Hamilton Daily Democrat (Hamilton, Ohio).  May 14, 1892.  Page 4.

The Callahan Building in downtown Dayton

The Callahan Bank Building.  The Lutzenberger Picture Collection, Dayton Metro Library (Dayton, Ohio).  MS024 0265.

Matthews was a country doctor and poet and one of Paul's earliest supporters.  They came into contact a few months earlier when Matthews visited Dayton for a writers' conference.  He wrote about Paul's unpleasant working conditions in an article that first appeared in the Indianapolis Journal, and was then republished around the country, including a newspaper in Dayton.

His mother is living in Dayton, and he is supporting her and himself on the pitiful sum of $4 per week.  Paul Dunbar!  He deserves a better fate.  Dayton, the terminus of the old underground railway, should be proud of him, and yet, with all his natural brilliancy and capacity for better things, he is chained like a galley-slave to the ropes of a dingy elevator at starvation wages.

"A New Negro Poet."  Dayton Daily Journal (Dayton, Ohio).  October 24, 1892.  Page 3.

A few weeks later, Paul wrote to Matthews again, describing a particularly bad day on the job, and the impact of his newspaper article.

A ring called me upstairs to roll up some windows for a lady.  Got my finger caught and crushed, have not been able to write any until today.  This missive is written with pain and difficulty.  The republication of your article here has greatly inflamed my employer, especially the wage part -- he had just had his name in the papers for giving $2000 to charity -- he is trying to make me swallow all the insults he can, and will discharge me as soon as he can find another man to work eleven hours a day for $4.00 a week.  If I saw [a] chance to get other work within two or three weeks I would quit immediately.  Cannot say all I want to now.  When my thumb is better, I will write more.

Paul Laurence Dunbar to James Newton Matthews, November 4, 1892.  Paul Laurence Dunbar Papers, Ohio History Connection (Microfilm edition, Roll 1).

The painful incident resulted in some early publicity for Paul.

Paul Dunbar, the young poet, of Dayton, Ohio, is suffering from a mashed thumb, caused by a heavy window falling upon it.

"Personal and Impersonal."  The Plaindealer (Detroit, Michigan).  November 18, 1892.  Page 7.

Several years later, Paul looked back upon his experiences as an elevator operator with a more positive attitude.

After graduation, there was nothing for me to do save to go into menial employment as other young Negroes did.  I took the nearest thing -- an elevator.  A better thing could not have happened.  In the nearly two years which, altogether, I spent in the place, I improved the leisure between trips in studying and writing.  While working here I brought out my first book "Oak and Ivy," which was privately printed and sold well in a circumscribed plane.

Paul Laurence Dunbar to A. S. Lanahan, February 17, 1898.  Paul Laurence Dunbar Papers, Ohio History Connection (Microfilm edition, Roll 2).