Preserving our past for the future

Dec. 01, 2012 @ 04:03 PM

Paul Laurence Dunbar never visited Henderson. But he has had an influence on local residents, although very indirectly.
On Breckenridge Street, not far from Elmwood Cemetery, a historical marker designates the former location of the Dunbar Branch of the Perry Memorial Library.
Dunbar, who lived from 1872 to 1906, was the best-known African-American poet of his time. In recognition of Dunbar’s accomplishments, when a branch library opened at Henderson’s Colored Central Graded School in 1926, it was designated the Dunbar Branch.
Long-time Henderson resident Ruth Burt, at 91 years of age, provides recollections of the Dunbar Branch that residents of fewer years cannot.
She remembers when the Dunbar Branch was in the Colored Central Graded School.
“Mrs. Mary Eaton was the librarian,” she said. “The school was located on Pettigrew Street.”
The branch library served the school’s students and community until 1946, when a fire at the school forced a move to a building on Breckenridge Street.
Except for the efforts of the Vance County Historical Society, Dunbar’s connection with Henderson might have been lost.
“We should document and preserve history while it is in living memory,” said Suzanne Fathauer, a member of the organization’s board.
On Breckenridge Street near the site of the second home of the Dunbar Branch, the Vance County Historical Society has erected a historical marker that reads:
“Dunbar Library. 1926. The Dunbar Branch of the H. Leslie Perry Library was established in 1926 at the Colored Central Graded School with Mrs. Mary Eaton as librarian. After fire destroyed the building in 1946, the library was moved to this site on Breckenridge Street until the late 1960’s when it was incorporated in the H. Leslie Perry Library. Placed by the Vance County Historical Society.”
But who was the man being honored in a place he had never visited?
Dunbar, a son of escaped slaves, was born in Dayton, Ohio, in 1872. Although he died when he was just 33 years old, he produced an impressive body of work, including poems, short stories, novels, plays, songs and essays. He was popular with black readers and white readers, with scholars as well as school children.
Dunbar wrote poetry in standard English and in turn-of-the-century African-American dialect. He was frustrated that his dialect poems sold better. And he received criticism from prominent African-Americans, such as James Weldon Johnson, author of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” for reinforcing stereotypes.
The beauty of his use of standard English is illustrated by his poem, “Christmas Carol,” which captures the universal meaning of the holiday.
In another poem he expressed his empathy with “the least of these.”
With the historical marker on Breckenridge Street, Paul Laurence Dunbar’s name is preserved in Henderson’s history. His talent was evident, and his life too short, but he left a rich legacy of written work.

Contact the writer at dirvine@hendersondispatch.com.