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The Poet's Doctor: The Friendship Of Paul Laurence Dunbar And Dr. William Burns

Paul Laurence Dunbar
Courtesy of the Ohio History Connection
Paul Laurence Dunbar

More than a hundred years ago, there were two young men at Central High School in downtown Dayton who became lifelong friends. Their lives were both tragically short, but full of consequence. One became Dayton’s first licensed African American doctor—the other the world’s first internationally acclaimed African American poet. Community Voices Producer Leo DeLuca has a story about Dr. William A. Burns, known as “Bud,” and his friend,  Paul Laurence Dunbar.

Dr. William A. "Bud" Burns
Credit Courtesy of the Ohio History Connection
Dr. William A. "Bud" Burns

Central High School stood at Fourth and Wilkinson near Sacred Heart, the historic Copper-domed Catholic church that still towers in downtown Dayton today. In the years around 1890, Bud Burns and Paul Dunbar were two of the only African American students walking the halls of Central High. 

"When it’s only you and somebody else, you do have a tendency to gravitate toward each other. There’s no indication that either of them did poorly in school or had any social struggles with their other classmates," says Omope Carter Daboiku, the president of the Paul Laurence Dunbar Branch of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History in Dayton.

"Burns was actually two years younger than Dunbar, so he more than likely looked up to Dunbar as a big brother in the neighborhood. Burns’ life was quite unique because both his parents died when he was very young, and he was actually fostered by Charles Stivers, the Central High School principal, Civil War vet, for whom Stivers High School for the Arts is named."

Dunbar, on the other hand, was the child of Kentucky slaves. His mother, Matilda, gained custody after his parents divorced when he was an infant. She taught herself to read earlier in life, and she taught the young poet to read when he was only four years old.

"For Burns and for Dunbar, we have to truly acknowledge the social convention of sponsorship," says Daboiku. "The fact that Dunbar does become a writer and a poet and internationally acclaimed for his ability is directly related to his mother’s decision to invest in her son. She found him to be talented with words at an early age. They both led lives with patrons."

Paul Laurence Dunbar became famous on his 24th birthday in 1896. Around this time, he got a new manager, James D. Pond, who also represented Mark Twain. Bud Burns, his old friend, was in Cleveland at Western Reserve University, paying his way through medical school. He then opened up a practice in Dayton, and he became really popular around town.

Burns and Dunbar kept in touch throughout their lives, and when Dunbar developed tuberculosis around 1900, Burns traveled with him up to the Catskill Mountains on health retreats. The doctor stood by the poet’s side as he struggled to stay alive, but tragically, it was Burns—not Dunbar—that first met the hands of death.

"Burns dies in November of 1905 at the age of 32 from typhoid fever that was raging in the Dayton city at that time," says Daboiku.

The Paul Laurence Dunbar House Historic Site where Dunbar lived during his final days and where he died.
Credit Carillon Historical Park
The Paul Laurence Dunbar House Historic Site where Dunbar lived during his final days and where he died.

Burns died within two weeks of contracting typhoid fever. This news shocked the city of Dayton, but no one took it harder than Dunbar.

"And we suspect that Dunbar, who dies only three months later, must have fallen into great despair and depression behind Burns’ death."

Paul Laurence Dunbar died at the age of 33.

"They are buried both in Woodland Cemetery in Dayton, Ohio," says Daboiku. "Burns is in Section number 33, and Dunbar is in Section 101. So they’re still hanging out in the same place, even in death."