Dunbar House: Step Back in Time

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Walking through the house is like stepping back in time. In 1903, suffering from tuberculosis, Dunbar bought the two-storey brick for his mother. She cared for him there in his later years until his death at age 33.

Matilda continued to live in the house, opening it as a museum, until her own death in 1934. In 1936 the Ohio Historical Society acquired the house and the responsibility of running the museum. A project completed in 2003 returned the house to as much as possible when Dunbar and his mother lived there.

Dunbar historian and scholar LaVerne Sci examines newspaper archives regarding Paul Laurence Dunbar. STAFF/RUSSELL FLORENCE JR.

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Dunbar historian and scholar LaVerne Sci examines newspaper archives regarding Paul Laurence Dunbar. STAFF/RUSSELL FLORENCE JR.

1 credit

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Laura and I were fortunate enough to tour Dunbar with LaVerne Sci, a treasure from Dayton who worked at the house for 20 years before retiring as site manager and director. She still volunteers at the House and also chairs an annual tribute to Dunbar at Woodlawn Cemetery on the day of his death, February 9.

What’s so wonderful about Sci is that she’s likely to launch into spirited recitations of Dunbar’s poems whenever she talks about her favorite poet. She says she inherited a love of Dunbar’s poetry from a mother and grandfather who recited it frequently.

The hutch in the dining room of the Paul Laurence Dunbar house could move away from the wall and the bed folded up in the back. LISA POWELL / STAFF

The hutch in the dining room of the Paul Laurence Dunbar house could move away from the wall and the bed folded up in the back.  LISA POWELL / STAFF

The hutch in the dining room of the Paul Laurence Dunbar house could move away from the wall and the bed folded up in the back. LISA POWELL / STAFF

Here are, in Sci’s words, some of her favorite places in Dunbar House:

  • “I really like the dining room because it worked in so many ways. Over time, this room has quietly witnessed love, concern, and change. Besides doing the laundry, Mother Dunbar sewed for people to supplement her income and she used it as a place to get kitted up. It became a workspace for her. When I stand in this room today and look around me, I see the rocking crib that Mother Dunbar brought from Kentucky and rocked her babies in.
  • “The first room up the stairs is the sleeping area, with Paul’s desk, daybed and books. It was there that he sat in a comfortable armchair and read.
  • “There is a piece of furniture that goes down into a bed. At some point, after her son’s death, many prominent people passing through Dayton passed by the house. There weren’t many hotels accepting black people and they slept one or two nights on this bed.

Other treasures on display in the turn-of-the-century house include Dunbar’s bicycle given to him by the Wright Brothers; his collection of Native American art and a ceremonial sword presented to him by President Theodore Roosevelt.

“He endured and he struggled and it was through his determination that he found what really shone in his life and that was writing,” Sci says.

The Paul Laurence Dunbar House in Dayton is a museum dedicated to the poet. In 1936 it became the first state memorial to honor an African American. LISA POWELL / STAFF

The Paul Laurence Dunbar House in Dayton is a museum dedicated to the poet.  In 1936 it became the first state memorial to honor an African American.  LISA POWELL / STAFF

The Paul Laurence Dunbar House in Dayton is a museum dedicated to the poet. In 1936 it became the first state memorial to honor an African American. LISA POWELL / STAFF

As I expected, Cousin Laura loved Dunbar House.

“I remember it as such an intimate experience,” she says now. “It was very direct and it really felt like visiting someone’s home and getting to know them. I really liked that you could stand there and use your imagination and just experience the house. I’d rather walk around in something genuine that hasn’t been tampered with than push little buttons everywhere.

In addition to composing poems and literature, Paul Laurence Dunbar used a Remington Standard typewriter to write his work, editorials for newspapers and for correspondence. LISA POWELL / STAFF

In addition to composing poems and literature, Paul Laurence Dunbar used a Remington Standard typewriter to write his work, editorials for newspapers and for correspondence.  LISA POWELL / STAFF

In addition to composing poems and literature, Paul Laurence Dunbar used a Remington Standard typewriter to write his work, editorials for newspapers and for correspondence. LISA POWELL / STAFF

Tips for tours

Park ranger Angela Stewart serves as project manager for the 150th anniversary and also gives tours of Dunbar House.

She recommends visitors allow around an hour and 15 minutes to tour the house. There is a self-guided tour of the exhibition space and a guided tour of the house. It is advisable to start with the 18-minute film which provides information on Dunbar’s life.

“Touring is always different,” says Stewart. “We want to make the visit relevant to visitors and let them know how Dunbar’s life is connected to ours. We are talking about the fact that he was not only a poet but also a writer. He wrote a total of 12 books, including novels, poetry collections and short stories.

Children, she notes, are always interested in objects that are different from what they have at home. “There is a telephone in the house which is completely different from the telephones found in their homes today. There were a lot of crazy quilts made during this time and kids are interested in quilts.

The new exhibition “Paul Laurence Dunbar: Diamond of the Gem City” opened on June 3 at the Paul Laurence Dunbar House in Dayton. This cutout suit, pants and fedora from the Ohio History Connection collection belonged to Dunbar. Popular in menswear of the 1890s, Dunbar was often photographed wearing suits, his head bowed and his expression subdued. CONTRIBUTED/NATIONAL AFRICAN-AMERICAN MUSEUM AND CULTURAL CENTER

The new exhibition “Paul Laurence Dunbar: Diamond of the Gem City” opened on June 3 at the Paul Laurence Dunbar House in Dayton.  This cutout suit, pants and fedora from the Ohio History Connection collection belonged to Dunbar.  Popular in menswear of the 1890s, Dunbar was often photographed wearing suits, his head bowed and his expression subdued.  CONTRIBUTED/NATIONAL AFRICAN-AMERICAN MUSEUM AND CULTURAL CENTER

The new exhibition “Paul Laurence Dunbar: Diamond of the Gem City” opened on June 3 at the Paul Laurence Dunbar House in Dayton. This cutout suit, pants and fedora from the Ohio History Connection collection belonged to Dunbar. Popular in menswear of the 1890s, Dunbar was often photographed wearing suits, his head bowed and his expression subdued. CONTRIBUTED/NATIONAL AFRICAN-AMERICAN MUSEUM AND CULTURAL CENTER

A new exhibition

An ongoing exhibit at the house – “Paul Laurence Dunbar: Diamond of the Gem City” – focuses on the poet’s life within a community of African-American activists. The show is co-sponsored by the Ohio History Connection, the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center, and the National Park Service.

The co-organizers of the new exhibit are Hadley Drodge and Derek Pridemore of the Afro-American Museum.

Drodge says there are two main purposes for the display. “The first was to celebrate the 150th anniversary and create an exhibit that could travel to schools and libraries across the country that bore Dunbar’s name. The other was to help reconceptualize Dunbar in the world in which he lived.

Dunbar’s story, she says, is often told in relation to her white audience with a focus on the white people who helped her in her career. “We wanted to take another look at this, so we went into the archives and read everything in the 20 boxes of the Ohio History Collection. We wanted to see who was important to him in his letters.

Pridemore says the letters are very important because they reveal Dunbar’s thoughts and feelings about the people in his life. The books are significant because of the inscriptions of many black activists of the time.

“We went into the collections warehouse and pulled out things that hadn’t been seen by the public or hadn’t been seen in a very long time,” he explains. “We exhibited his worker’s pass for the Chicago World’s Fair.”

He says journalist Ida B. Wells and Dunbar worked with black social reformer and orator Frederick Douglass at the 1893 fair and helped distribute a pamphlet written by Wells that praised the achievements of African Americans and was by therefore a form of protest. Dunbar delivered a patriotic poem about veterans at the fair.

Among the exhibits is one of Dunbar’s costumes. “He liked to dress up in nice clothes,” says Pridemore. “We also have a piece of clothing that belonged to his mother.” Also on display is a photograph of the first all-black Broadway musical for which Dunbar wrote the lyrics. The show toured America and Europe after running in New York.

“We hope people in Dayton, across the state and across the country can come and immerse themselves in these stories of Dunbar’s life and learn more about ourselves, our past and our present,” says Drodge.

HOW TO GET THERE

What: Paul Laurence Dunbar House

Where: 219 N. Paul Laurence Dunbar Street, Dayton

Museum hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday to Sunday.

Visits: Tours are available when you visit the house, and you can also book a tour on a day when the museum is not officially open. Call (937) 225-7705 or email [email protected] Through special arrangements it is possible to request a guided tour by scholar Dunbar LaVerne Sci.

Admission: Free

Car park: Available on the street.

Associated programming:

  • The 150th anniversary traveling exhibition ‘Paul Laurence Dunbar: Diamond of the Gem City’ will be open at Dunbar House until 9 January 2023. It will then travel to libraries and elsewhere.
  • A short film and exhibit on Dunbar can also be found at the Wright-Dunbar Interpretive Center, 16 S. Williams St., Dayton.
  • On the second Sunday of each month, Dunbar House hosts a literary circle. In addition to Dunbar’s work, various types of poetry and literature are also shared. The next events will take place from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. on July 10 and August 14.
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