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Little Rock Central High School... A Delaware connection!

In my previous post, I wrote about our visit to Little Rock Central High School. It was a very powerful and moving experience.

We learned that in 1927, the federal government awarded the city of Little Rock $1.5 million dollars (about $20 million in today's dollars) to build two new high schools in the name of separate-but-equal. But, the city funneled the full amount into the construction of a massive, six-story, block long edifice for white students that was considered upon completion to be “The Most Beautiful High School in America”. This happened at a time when Arkansas was trying to promote itself as the "rising star" of the South.

Little Rock Central High School

So the black community of Little Rock banded together and raised $400,000 and created Dunbar High School, named in honor of the black poet Paul Laurence Dunbar (one of his poems is below).

Paul Laurence Dunbar High School (now a middle school)

At that time, that name meant nothing to us. But weeks later when we were visiting the Wright Brothers Workshop in Dayton, Ohio, Mr. Dunbar's name came up again.

The museum talked of how he was a friend, classmate and business associate of Orville and Wilbur Wright. He was born in Dayton in 1872, the son of former slaves. During his short life, he published: four volumes of short stories, four novels, three published plays, lyrics for 13 songs, and over 400 published poems and essays before dying at the age of 33 from TB.

Motivated by his remarkable story (and our woeful ignorance), we decided to do further research. First, we visited the Paul L. Dunbar museum (in the home he bought for his mother) , where we learned that he was buried nearby. We drove over to the Woodland Cemetery and Arboretum in Dayton and found him buried next to his devoted Mother (who cared for him in the final years of his short life)

--Sadly, the grass had grown up around the foot of his mother's gravestone hiding the inscription. After pulling away the grass I saw that it read: "Erected Feb. 1940, Pupils Of Dunbar High School"

Paul Dunbar and his mother


And then we discovered a Delaware connection!


After doing further digging ( on the Internet not at the cemetery), we discovered that on March 6, 1898, Paul Dunbar married Alice Ruth Moore . She was a teacher and poet from New Orleans whom he had met three years earlier. Dunbar called her "the sweetest, smartest little girl I ever saw".

But the relationship proved stormy, exacerbated by Dunbar's alcoholism and depression. She and Paul separated in 1902, at which time Alice moved to Wilmington, Delaware where

she took a job teaching English at Howard High School! During this period, she also taught summer sessions at State College for Colored Students (the predecessor of Delaware State University), headed the Delaware Anti-Lynching Crusaders, was field organizer for the Middle Atlantic States in the campaign for women's suffrage, served on the State Republican Committee of Delaware, and co-edited the Wilmington Advocate, a progressive black newspaper.

Her collected works are stored at the University of Delaware.

And now you know the "rest of the story"!




I know what the caged bird feels, alas!

When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;

When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,

And the river flows like a stream of glass;

When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,

And the faint perfume from its chalice steals—

I know what the caged bird feels!

I know why the caged bird beats his wing

Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;

For he must fly back to his perch and cling

When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;

And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars

And they pulse again with a keener sting—

I know why he beats his wing!

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,

When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—

When he beats his bars and he would be free;

It is not a carol of joy or glee,

But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,

But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings—

I know why the caged bird sings!

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