Arts And Culture

Black History in South L.A.: Poet Paul Dunbar

Feb. 6, 2012, 6:41 a.m.

Poet Paul Dunbar, pictured above, is the namesake of the Dunbar Hotel on Central Avenue, which was a hub for jazz and black culture in the 1930s and 1940s.


In recognition of Black History Month, OnCentral is bringing you the stories of black women and men who have had a particular impact on the culture, character and community of South Los Angeles.

In the 4200 block of South Central Avenue stands a building, the prestige of which has faded in recent years but whose history is rich as ever.

It's where the first national convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in the western United States was held. It's the place that, in the 1930s, became a nightclub that was the center of the legendary Central Avenue jazz scene -- a place where the likes of Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong bared their soul in their art. It's the place that's counted W. E. B. Du Bois, Ray Charles and Thurgood Marshall among its guests.

It's the place that, according to the L.A. Times in 1979, was the "gathering spot for the crème de la crème of black society, the hotel for performers who could entertain in white hotels but not sleep in them": the Dunbar.

Originally known as the Hotel Somerville, the hotel was always known among the black community as being a place of welcome, during a time when discrimination against blacks was the norm. It was also known as a place of luxury for a demographic that wasn't used to that; Roy Wilkins of the New York Amsterdam News wrote at the time that "[everything] was just the opposite of what we had come to expect in 'Negro' hotels."

In 1929, John and Vada Somerville, the builders and original owners, were forced to sell after the devastating stock market crash that came at the turn of the decade. The change to its current name came later that year -- after the poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar -- and under its new ownership, the Dunbar's vibe began to change: Now it had a permit to "conduct a cabaret in the dining room," according to a 1931 edition of the L.A. Times, which would eventually set the stage for it to become several of Los Angeles' "hearts": the heart of black culture, the heart of jazz culture and -- as the Times put it -- the "heart of Saturday night."

It's appropriate that a place named after Dunbar became such a haven for the arts. Born in the late 19th century to escaped slaves, Dunbar's work was first published in Dayton, Ohio's The Herald newspaper in 1888. Two years later, Dunbar was writing for and editing Dayton's first weekly black newspaper, The Tattler, an enterprise which was published by the Wright Brothers' publishing company and lasted for just six weeks. After ending his formal schooling 1891, Dunbar took on a four-dollars-a-week job as an elevator operator, trying to get his poetry published on the side.

What set much of Dunbar's work apart was also what, in the view of many scholars, helped him become one of the first nationally-accepted black writers: He wrote using a "Negro dialect," meaning he kept the nuances of the way in which many black people spoke at the time intact in his writing. One such writing was "A warm day in winter":

Sunshine on de medders,
Greenness on de way;
Dat's de blessed reason
I sing all de day."
Look yeah! What you axing'?
What meks me so merry?
'Spect to see me sighin'
W'en hit's warm in Febawary?

Writing in this way garnered Dunbar both praise and criticism -- The New York Times called him "[a] true singer of the people -- white or black"; writer and activist James Weldon Johnson, on the other hand, said Dunbar's dialect poems fostered stereotypes of blacks "as comic or pathetic and reinforcing the restriction that blacks write only scenes of plantation life." Dunbar's writing wasn't limited to Negro dialect, though -- he also wrote traditional verse, and in total wrote 12 books of poetry, in addition to four books of short stories, five novels and a play.

Dunbar died young in 1906 at age 33 after being diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1900, but his legacy still breathes -- through his work, through the people he's inspired (Maya Angelou named her autobiographical book "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" after a line in Dunbar's poem "Sympathy") and through the brick, five-story building that sits on 4225 South Central Avenue.

Tell us who you think should be included in this series -- leave your suggestions in the comments!

Public domain photo source: Ohio Historical Society, Library of Congress

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