An Unlikely Friendship: Paul Laurence Dunbar and the Wright Brothers

This month, we join with the National Park Service in celebrating and honoring African American History Month by sharing stories about African American history in the Outer Banks and your OBX national parks.

Dunbar, far left back and Orville, center back.

In 1890 at a small rural high school in Dayton, Ohio an unlikely friendship was born between a young Orville Wright and an aspiring African American poet named Paul Laurence Dunbar. In those early years, Paul and Orville often used their talents to help each other with class assignments – Paul having a talent for writing and Orville making easy work of math and science.

Orville was entrepreneurial from a young age and through his printing business was one of the first to publish Dunbar’s writings. Dunbar even wrote a funny poem honoring Orville’s business skills:

 

“Orville Wright is out of sight

In the printing business.

No other mind is half so bright

As his’n is.”

 

Paul Laurence Dunbar was born in Dayton, Ohio, on June 27, 1872, during the Reconstruction Era. His parents were freed slaves and Ohio Central High School he was the only African American in his class. He had a gift for the written word and served as the editor of the school’s newspaper and also participated in the literary and debate societies.

Dunbar had a desire to pursue a career in journalism, which led him to create his own newspaper for distribution in Dayton’s African American community, the Dayton Tattler, which Orville printed. The younger Wright and his elder brother had started a newspaper of their own, the West Side News in 1889. The three young men joined together to keep their communities informed. At the time, the Wright brothers were also building and selling bicycles, and they helped Dunbar build his own bicycle.

While the Wright Brothers would not become well known until 1903, Dunbar gained notoriety a few years after graduating from high school. Unfortunately, Dunbar’s dreams of being a journalist did not materialize right away, as he did not have the funds to further his education and he was barred from the majority of jobs because he was African American.

According to a biography on Dunbar’s life published by Wright State University, Dunbar worked as an elevator operator while continuing to write poetry and short stories.

In 1892, one of Dunbar’s former teachers invited him to speak at the Western Association of Writers convention in Dayton. Dunbar’s experiences during and after the convention led him to self-publish his first book of poems, Oak and Ivy, in 1893: “he sold the book for $1 to people riding in his elevator, eventually recovering his initial $125 investment.”

Dunbar’s work quickly became popular, earning him the acclaim of many, including Frederick Douglass. As Dunbar’s work became more widely known, he traveled around the United States and England giving readings.

A gifted and ingenious young man who never gave up, Dunbar launched a literary career that spanned 14 years and shaped both history and American literature.

The National Park Service recognizes Dunbar as “…an American poet and author who was best known in his lifetime for his dialect work and his use of metaphor and rhetoric, often in a conversational style. In his short career, he produced twelve books of poetry, four novels, four books of short stories, and wrote the lyrics to many popular songs. Dunbar became the first African American to support himself financially through his writing.”

Dunbar passed away at the age of 33 at his mother’s home in Dayton in 1906, after a battle with tuberculosis.

To learn more about Paul Laurence Dunbar, you can visit the Flight Room at Wright Brothers National Memorial or visit his home, which is now a part of Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historic Park.

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