Almost everyone knows something about Dayton’s high-flying Wright brothers Wilbur and Orville, but not so many know of the poetic and history of Dayton writer, Paul Laurence Dunbar. We recently took a trip to visit the Wright-Dunbar Visitor Center at Dayton Aviation National Historic Park. It is the perfect place to learn about Orville and Wilbur Wright as well as Paul Laurence Dunbar, the son of former slaves who wrote, published and performed more than 400 poems, novel, plays and short stories.
If you are a history buff like me, this is a must-see experience in Ohio.
Orville Wright and Paul Laurence Dunbar met as members of Dayton’s Central High School’s class of 1891. Wright dropped out of high school to work on creating a heavier-than-air flying machine with his brother Wilbur.
The Wright brothers had a bicycle shop and a printing business while they became self-taught inventors and aviators who achieved world-wide fame.
Dunbar’s earned his high-school degree, but found it difficult to parlay his education and talent into a viable career at that time.
Dunbar continued to write as he finally found a job as an elevator operator in downtown Dayton.
His old friends, the Wright Brothers, printed some of Dunbar’s early poetry, literature and several issues of a newspaper he produced for Dayton’s African-American community during 1890.
Maybe the most interesting part of the trip to us was learning about the close relationship enjoyed by Dunbar and Orville Wright at this time in history.
One of Dunbar’s former teachers invited him to speak at a writers’ convention. Coverage of Dunbar’s public reading led to opportunities allowing him to publish his first poetry book and book speaking tours throughout the U.S. and Great Britain.
Dunbar’s brief rise to fame ended when he died of tuberculosis by 1906.
Still, Dunbar’s sharing of the African American experience in America greatly influenced African-American writers in literature and poetry during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s.
The Wrights continued to perfect their flying machine, achieving success with it during the first decade of the 1900s.
Interest in preserving the old Dayton neighborhood of the men took shape nearly a century later after neglect, riots and a highway project cutting through town nearly destroyed it.
Henry Ford moving one of the Wright cycle shops from Dayton to Greenfield Village near metro Detroit (where I’ve seen it multiple times) spurred a movement to establish the non-profit Aviation Trail in Dayton and preserve some of the remaining historic sites in town.
The Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historic Park includes a Wright Cycle shop, the Hoover Block neighborhood, Huffman Prairie Flying Field and the Paul Laurence Dunbar State Memorial. Each site earned a place on the National Historic Register during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Congress appropriated money to name them as part of a new NPS area in 1992.
We enjoyed strolling the hallways of the center together, arm and arm, talking about what it must have been like to be an innovator at this point in history. It makes you proud of Ohio’s rich history.
The Wright-Dunbar Visitor Center opened in 2003, just in time to celebrate the centennial of the Wrights’ first practical flight.