December 23 - Dear Dayton

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On December 23, 1893, Paul Laurence Dunbar in Dayton wrote to his friend James Newton Matthews in Mason, Illinois, about his relationship with his hometown.  Paul had recently returned to Dayton after spending months in Chicago during the World's Columbian Exposition.  Paul was having difficulty making a living and he seemed to feel unappreciated by the people of Dayton.

Especially since I returned from Chicago have I been bemoaning the fact that my own people were growing away from me, that they watched not for my success but for my failure, that they saw in my efforts no worth, only presumption.  I have at present no regular employment but am trying to live by my pen.  The articles published about me in Chicago were unfortunate inasmuch as they were copied here at home and the people to whom I would apply for employment think that I can get along with nothing beside the scanty returns of my literary and journalistic ventures.

Paul Laurence Dunbar to James Newton Matthews, December 23, 1893.  Paul Laurence Dunbar Papers, Ohio History Connection (Microfilm edition, Roll 1).

Earlier in the year, newspapers publicized Paul's budding career as a writer and orator.  They reported on his activities in Chicago, such as when he shared the stage with Frederick Douglass and other prominent Black leaders on Colored American Day at the World's Fair.  Paul thought this news coverage led people in Dayton to assume he was able to make a living as a writer.

DAYTON, O. -- Paul Dunbar, the poet, left last Friday for Chicago, where he will accept a position as editor of a paper.

The Cleveland Gazette (Cleveland, Ohio).  May 6, 1893.  Page 2.

CHICAGO, Ill. -- Mr. Paul Dunbar of Dayton, O., read one of his own poems at the opening of the Tourgee Club last week.

"Windy City News."  The Cleveland Gazette (Cleveland, Ohio).  June 17, 1893.  Page 2.

It was Colored American day at the Fair.  All the morning a great crowd of colored people had been gathered about Festival Hall.  Fred Douglass was greeted with applause as he walked across the stage to take the chair.  The musical treat of the afternoon came later when Sidney Woodward of Boston was presented.  He sang one of Verdi's arias in a tenor that for sweetness and purity of tone has rarely been equaled at the Exposition.  Paul Dunbar of Dayton, O., the author of "Oak and Ivy," was presented and read an original poem on "The Colored American."  Miss Hattie Q. Brown recited a couple of dramatic selections, and Joseph Douglass, a grandson of Frederick, played several classical numbers on the violin.

"Appeal of Douglass."  The Chicago Tribune (Chicago, Illinois).  August 26, 1893.  Page 3.

Paul also wrote to Frederick Douglass about how the people of Dayton criticized him after he returned from Chicago.

For myself I am well in body but not in mind.  The people in my town have never encouraged my aspirations, they have done all they could to crush me and now on my return from a summer of hard and honest effort I find a scene of slanders afloat concerning my sojourn in Chicago -- as to my reception there, my social status and a dozen other petty trifles.  I am sick at heart and almost discouraged.  If I ask for work, I am told with a sneer that I ought to have stayed in Chicago where I got on so well.

Paul Laurence Dunbar to Frederick Douglass, December 30, 1893.  Frederick Douglass Papers at the Library of Congress (Washington, D. C.).  MSS11879, Box 10, Reel 7.

A few years later, Paul had another homecoming after his trip to England, and he was again bothered by the behavior of people in Dayton.  Paul told his fiancée Alice Ruth Moore how old friends (and enemies) treated him differently because they considered him famous.

Yesterday being Sunday there was such an influx of visitors to see me that I did not get time to drop you the line I so much wished to send you.  It is hard to tell here at home whether I am a returned exiled explorer or a popular congressman after a stormy session.  They want to photograph me and my mother, and my uncle and aunt and cousin.  They even want to get my little den of a work room before the camera.  It makes me tired.  All my old enemies are turned friends and my friends seem to distrust me when I say that I am the same old boy.

Paul Laurence Dunbar to Alice Ruth Moore, October 11, 1897.  Paul Laurence Dunbar Papers, Ohio History Connection (Microfilm edition, Roll 5).

A meeting will be held at Lincoln Club Hall, on Baxter Street, tomorrow evening.  Good speakers will be present, among them the now famous Paul Dunbar.

"City Items."  The Dayton Evening Herald (Dayton, Ohio).  October 14, 1897.  Page 2.

The visits and ovations of the home people continue.  It is quite a change from their old tactics.

Paul Laurence Dunbar to Alice Ruth Moore, October 15, 1897.  Paul Laurence Dunbar Papers, Ohio History Connection (Microfilm edition, Roll 5).

Paul made a third homecoming to Dayton in 1900, when he traveled by train from Denver, through a snowstorm, to recite at a fundraiser for some local high school boys.  The city greeted him warmly and, in a letter to Alice, Paul pointed out with irony that Charles Dustin sat in the front row during his recitation.  Years earlier, Paul had applied to work in Dustin's law office, but was given a job as an elevator operator instead.

I struck the awful blizzard in Chicago and took a severe cold.  Wednesday I couldn't speak above a whisper and when I arrived here Thursday night with the train five hours late, I was a little better.  Although my voice was the worse I ever spoke with, the people were very enthusiastic and the boys are delighted.  They surely had a full house, people standing in the gallery.  Tell ma that Dustin was on the very front seat.

Paul Laurence Dunbar to Alice Moore Dunbar, March 3, 1900.  Paul Laurence Dunbar Papers, Ohio History Connection (Microfilm edition, Roll 8).

I knew Paul Laurence Dunbar as a boy.  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.

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

Paul's final homecoming took place in late 1903 when he moved back to Dayton after having lived in Chicago, Denver, London, New York City and Washington, D. C.  Paul was again treated like a celebrity, and he was invited to speak at the National Cash Register company, where he had been employed in his youth.  Even though he was a high school graduate, Paul was hired as a janitor because he was Black.

Paul Laurence Dunbar, who has made an international reputation as a writer of verse and poetic song, appeared before the hundreds of employees of the National Cash Register company Wednesday afternoon and gave several readings and recitations.  He was enthusiastically received by the employees among whom he used to work as a member of the force of colored janitors.  His first appearance at the factory in which he was a janitor several years ago was uniquely different from his appearance when he used to wear the white suit of the janitors.

"Like Return of a Hero."  The Dayton Daily News (Dayton, Ohio).  January 7, 1904.  Page 2.

Paul reciting in the NCR dining room

Paul reciting at National Cash Register, January 6, 1904.  Image provided by the NCR Archive at Dayton History.  NCR.1998.CD06.

Paul was in failing health due to tuberculosis, and he spent the remaining few years of his life in his hometown.  In the dialect poem "Bein' Back Home," Paul anticipated his death in Dayton.

Home agin, an' home to stay --
Yes, it's nice to be away.
Plenty things to do an' see,
But the old place seems to me
Jest about the proper thing.
Mebbe 'ts 'cause the mem'ries cling
Closer 'round yore place o' birth
'N ary other spot on earth.


Say, it's nice a-gittin' back,
When yore pulse is growin' slack,
An' yore breath begins to wheeze
Like a fair-set valley breeze;
Kind o' nice to set aroun'
On the old familiar groun',
Knowin' that when Death does come,
That he'll find you right at home.

Excerpt from "Bein' Back Home," by Paul Laurence Dunbar.  Published in Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow (1905).