PAUL LAURENCE DUNBAR was born in Dayton, Ohio, on June 27, 1872, the son of former slaves. He attended a local high school where he was the only black enrolled and was the editor of the school paper. After school Dunbar worked as an elevator boy in Dayton but also began to contribute poems and stories to local newspapers. He met Charles Thatcher, a lawyer from Toledo who gave substantial support in launching his literary career. Dunbar also worked as a clerk in the Haitian Pavilion at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, where he met Frederick Douglass and other prominent black figures.
Dunbar published poems in Dayton newspapers and brought out two verse collections, Oak and Ivy and Majors and Minors, privately printed in 1893 and 1895, respectively. William Dean Howells's influential review of the latter in Harper's Weekly marked the beginning of Dunbar's fame as a poet on a national level. Howells also wrote the introduction to Dunbar's next collection, Lyrics of Lowly Life (1896), which was well received. In 1897 Dunbar ventured to England for public readings and met and collaborated with composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. Later that year he became employed as reading room assistant in the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.
In 1898 Dunbar married Alice Ruth Moore, herself a noted poet and short story writer. In that same year he published his first novel, The Uncalled, followed by three others in rapid succession: The Love of Landry (1900), The Fanatics (1901), and The Sport of the Gods (1902). In 1899 he participated with Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois in readings to raise funds for the Tuskegee Institute, a Southern college for black American students; the following year he took part in Du Bois's conferences on black American issues at Atlanta University. Dunbar also retained a fondness for the Republican party, and in particular Theodore Roosevelt; he participated in this president's inaugural parades, and in 1905 he wrote a poem for the candidate's campaign.