On December 24, 1905, Paul Laurence Dunbar was only weeks away from death. He was unable to attend the Christmas Eve service at a church on his street in Dayton, so the choir came to him instead.
UNITED BRETHREN. Summit Street U. B. 7:30, the choir, under the direction of Ray Upson, will render a sacred cantata.
"Services in the Churches." December 23, 1905. The Dayton Daily News (Dayton, Ohio). Page a2.
After the Christmas service at the Summit Street United Brethren church, Sunday evening, where the beautiful cantata, "Light of Life," was given, the choir visited the home of Paul Laurence Dunbar, who is seriously ill, and sang a part of the cantata for him, which he greatly appreciated, and which brought Christmas cheer to his sickroom.
"Paul Dunbar Honored." The Dayton Daily News (Dayton, Ohio). December 25, 1905. Page 5.
Paul was in failing health due to tuberculosis, and was being cared for at home by his mother Matilda. Weeks earlier, an aspiring poet from Rhode Island sent some verses for Paul to read, but he was too weak to unroll the sheets of paper. Paul's reply to the poet was dictated, since it was written in someone else's handwriting.
Under another cover I am sending you your poems. I am very ill in bed as I have been for months, and I cannot read them. You could have made it easier by sending them flat. I can give you but one word of advice, and that is never roll manuscript. No publisher will ever look at it, and I did not have the strength in my hands to pull the sheets apart. I hope that you will have success and I am glad that you find your health improved. I am trying to get away myself now for the south but do not seem to be able to do so as I have no strength.
Paul Laurence Dunbar to Clarence A. Conway, December 13, 1905. Paul Laurence Dunbar Papers, Ohio History Connection (Microfilm edition, Roll 1).
Two days later, Paul wrote to Amelia Douglass, a daughter-in-law of Frederick Douglass, and a former neighbor from Washington, D. C. Amelia was happy to receive Paul's letter, but wondered whether he'd had the strength to sign it himself.
I wish I could make you understand how delighted we all were when your dear son Paul's letter written on the 15th Dec. reached our home. I dreaded to open the letter feeling he might be much worse than when you last wrote, so you can imagine our delight when we felt that he had composed the letter and perhaps signed it. I say perhaps because the dear boy does not always write the self same way. The signature of his 15th Dec. letter is entirely different, and yet he may have written it, but I fear he had not the strength for it.
Amelia Douglass to Matilda Dunbar, January 14, 1906. Paul Laurence Dunbar Papers, Ohio History Connection (Microfilm edition, Roll 2).
Paul's declining health was occasionally mentioned in the newspapers, which prompted the Reverend Freeley Rohrer to write a letter of concern. Rohrer and Paul went to the same high school in Dayton, and Rohrer was a seminary student in Chicago while Paul was there for the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893.
Paul Laurence Dunbar is living quietly and happily at his home in Dayton, and endures his ill health with patient resignation. He writes considerably, has much pleasant company from abroad and conducts a voluminous personal correspondence with friends.
"Among Bookmakers and Paragraphers." The Freeman (Indianapolis, Indiana). August 26, 1905. Page 2.
Mr. Paul Laurence Dunbar is so ill at his Dayton home that he is not expected to live through the week.
"Chips." The Broad Ax (Salt Lake City, Utah). January 20, 1906. Page 2.
I have seen several reports recently that you are ill. This morning I see it repeated in our morning paper. You have brought lots of cheer into the world and I hope it has been a world of beauty and good cheer to you. The world is an opportunity offered to mortals "to taste of the glories that there await."
Freeley Rohrer to Paul Laurence Dunbar, January 6, 1905. Paul Laurence Dunbar Papers, Ohio History Connection (Microfilm edition, Roll 1).
Rohrer's letter concludes with a quotation from a hymn called "Shall You? Shall I?" by James McGranahan: "Someone will enter the pearly gates, by and by, by and by, Taste of the glories that there await, Shall you? Shall I?"
After Lula May Clippinger, a teacher and missionary from Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, visited the Dunbar home, she described Matilda's devotion to Paul during the final months of his life.
Immediately after ringing the bell, a tall, elderly lady opened the door. I asked her if Mr. Dunbar was in and if I might see him. In a most gentle and loving tone of voice she invited me in, saying she would ask him. Soon I heard the weak, deep cough, caused by that dread disease, tuberculosis, which has hurried so many ambitious bodies from this life. In a little while Mrs. Dunbar returned, saying, "Now, I suppose you know my son has been very ill, but he wants to see you; he wants you to come up; it will not hurt him if you do not stay long."
I followed her to the room where lay this man of letters propped up with pillows. I shall never forget those large eyes as they turned toward me, as I entered the room, and that long hand outstretched to grasp mine. At first glance of him, he did not have the appearance of a sick man, but by closer observation his breathing could be seen to be very irregular and his cough very annoying.
But of all things which made lasting impressions on my mind that day was the devotion of Mrs. Dunbar. With what motherly care and anxiety she watched over her boy! After bidding him farewell I left his room, expecting to leave at once, but was detained by Mrs. Dunbar begging me to sit down and talk. As I sat there in that sitting room listening to that gray-haired mother tell of the care and charge he was, I could scarcely help shedding tears. "Oh," said she, "I am only living for Paul; when he goes I am ready to go too."
"A Visit to Paul Dunbar," by Lula May Clippinger. The Watchword (Dayton, Ohio). March 6, 1906. Pages 151 - 152.