Margaret Armstrong’s decorative bookbindings are beautiful representations of this talented book designer’s interest in botany, the distinctive lettering that she developed, and the rich colors that she used in her work. The designs she created for When Malindy Sings, Li’l Gal and Candle-Lightin’ Time introduced me to the author of these books, an African-American poet named Paul Laurence Dunbar.
Born to former slaves in 1872, Dunbar attended high school with Orville Wright, the future inventor and aviation pioneer, in Dayton, Ohio. Young Dunbar wrote poetry prolifically, even while working as an elevator operator in a Dayton bank building. When William Dean Howells praised the 24-year-old Dunbar’s second book of poetry, Majors and Minors, in a Harper’s Weekly review, the fledgling poet became famous.
Dunbar wrote two kinds of poems: those in standard Victorian-era English, which he considered his better work; and others in a dialect reflecting how he heard African-Americans speak, for which he became famous. Frustration over this is said to have led him to write the poem, “Sympathy,” which includes the famous line that inspired Maya Angelou’s 1969 autobiography: “I know why the caged bird sings.”
Dunbar wrote over 400 poems, novels, plays, short stories, and lyrics for musicals and an opera. At the height of his career, he traveled the world, giving lectures and poetry recitations, but it was too much for his naturally frail constitution. By 1899, he was suffering from tuberculosis and alcoholism. He returned to Dayton, bought a home for his mother, Matilda, in 1903, and completed his last work there before his death in 1906 at age 33. Matilda lived in the home until her death in 1934.
The Dunbars’ 1880s Italianate home was restored by the Ohio Historical Society in 2002 to show what the house would have looked like when the Dunbars lived there.
Tours of the home begin in the front parlor where the Dunbars received guests and the family parlor where Dunbar died.
The kitchen includes modern conveniences like a telephone, a gas stove, and a hot water heater, while the dining room features the bench on which Matilda rocked her only child and a hutch with a built-in hideaway bed.
Upstairs, visitors walk through Matilda’s sewing room and bedroom before coming to Dunbar’s bedroom, where his Remington typewriter is on display.
Dunbar’s study, or “loafing holt,” is where the poet liked to read and rest, surrounded by shelves of his books, souvenirs from his travels, and photographs of his friends and family. It must have been like the “sylvan cool retreat” that he described in his poem, “At Loafing-Holt.”
The bathroom has lead pipes and a special hot water tank that released steam into the room, serving as a kind of humidifier. A small section of the original yellow-and-blue wallpaper patterned to imitate Delft tiles was found behind the bathroom cabinet during the home’s renovation. A surviving scrap on a wall under a shelf indicated that the paper once covered all the walls of the room in the early 1900s, when Dunbar lived in the house, so a reproduction of the original wallpaper was made. Reproductions of other wallpapers found in a Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog of the period were also created to hang throughout the home.
Dunbar fell out of favor soon after his death, but there has been a resurgence of interest in his work in recent years. Herbert Woodward Martin, professor emeritus at the University of Dayton who gives live portrayals of Dunbar, joined Ronald Primeau to collect Dunbar’s previously unpublished short stories, essays and poems. In His Own Voice: The Dramatic and Other Uncollected Works of Paul Laurence Dunbar, published by Ohio University Press in 2002, is the result of their work.