Remembering Paul Laurence Dunbar’s Legacy

A brief history of Dunbar’s namesake.

Paul Laurence Dunbar is remembered as “one of the first influential black poets in American literature,” according to The Poetry Foundation. As a result, there are several streets and schools across the nation that bear his name including Lexington’s Paul Laurence Dunbar High School.

As the son of former slaves, Dunbar began his writing career during school where he was the editor of his school’s newspaper. Because of this, the name of Dunbar high school’s student news media, Lamplighter, was chosen in 1990 to honor Dunbar who, during his early life, working lighting street lamps.

Because he did not have the resources to pursue a career in journalism, he turned to writing.

Dunbar is best known for his use of dialect verse, which refers to colloquial language that is specific to a certain region or race. He became nationally acclaimed when critic William Dean Howells reviewed several of his works including Majors and Minors and Lyrics of a Lowly Life.

In 1898, Dunbar eloped with poet Alice Ruth Moore. However, the following year he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and he became an alcoholic to cope with the pain. He and Moore separated but never divorced. On Feb. 9 1906, Dunbar passed away.

PLD commemorates not only Dunbar, the man, but also Lexington’s former African American high school of the same name, often referred to as “original Dunbar.” The school was open from 1922 to 1967 and “had a rich tradition of excellence and high expectations,” according to Fayette County Public Schools. A tribute to the original school can be found outside Dunbar’s College and Career Center.

School social worker, Mr. Steve Duerson, leads the African American History Month activities at the school. He said,“the thing we have to remember…is that there is a legacy of excellence that came before us. That should also let us know that what we try to do as students or staff going forward is that we’re on the shoulders of those people that laid the ground for us.”