And felt the magic of his presence nigh,
The current that he sent throughout the land,
The kindling spirit of his battle cry.
O’er all that holds us we shall triumph yet,
And place our banner where his hopes were set!
— Paul Laurence Dunbar, excerpt from the poem “Frederick Douglass”
Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) was the nation’s first professional African American poet to be recognized by whites as well as blacks. His talent was evident from High School (where all the other students in his class were white), and he wrote the song used at his graduation ceremony held June 16, 1891. As a black youth, he could only find a job working as an elevator boy in Dayton, Ohio, the city where he grew up. But he managed to publish his first book of poems, Oak and Ivy (1893) and went to the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, initially to peddle the volume in the street to people passing by. There he met the abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who was then the U.S. Minister to Haiti and the commissioner of the Haitian exhibition. Douglass hired Dunbar as a clerk at the Haitian pavilion, and arranged for Dunbar to read his poems at the Colored American Day celebration held there. This gave Dunbar an opening and he met other African American writers and artists, such as Charlotte Forten Grimké, James Carrothers, James Campbell, and Will Marion Cook.
FREDERICK DOUGLASS: Some Links
Learn more about Frederick Douglass and his role in motivating African Americans to fight for justice:
The Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, Washington, D.C.
The Frederick Douglass Papers at the Library of Congress