Two famous men were in the same class at Central High School in 1890
Twenty-seven students gathered outside Dayton’s Central High School for the 1890 class portrait. Two of these students — Paul Laurence Dunbar and Orville Wright — would one day change the world.
Paul Laurence Dunbar became the world’s first internationally acclaimed African American poet. Orville Wright, the world’s first pilot. But while walking the halls of Central High School, the young men were far from famous—they were simply two unassuming friends who, remarkably, landed in the same small class.
“I was the only negro in the class and apparently popular,” Dunbar later says, reflecting on his high school years. “My chums encouraged me. My teachers encouraged me.”
Wright, on the other hand, was considerably less memorable. His ninth-grade botany instructor William Werthner described him as, “A quiet, reserved boy, faithful in his work, but not strikingly different from the rest.”
In 1886, around his freshman year, Wright started a printing business. Soon after, Wright’s older brother, Wilbur, joined the enterprise, marking the Wright brothers’ first foray as business partners.
Rather than graduate, Wright left the class of 1890 before his senior year to focus on the printing company. One of his earliest clients was Paul Laurence Dunbar.
Having a close friend in the printing business afforded Dunbar the ability to start his own newspaper, the Dayton Tattler. Only three issues of the Tattler are known to exist. The first edition features a particularly intriguing headline: “Airship Soon to Fly,” with Dunbar referencing E.J. Pennington’s dirigible flying machine.
Dunbar and Wright eventually grew apart. Following high school, Dunbar wrote prolifically while working varied jobs, including a stint at the Library of Congress. Along with printing, the Wright brothers opened a Dayton-based bicycle company. They also started studying aeronautics.
On Dunbar’s 24th birthday, June 27, 1896, he received a glowing Harper’s Weekly review from the prominent Ohio-raised literary critic William Dean Howells. The review quickly brought him fame and he was soon traveling internationally.
Years later, Dunbar would inspire writers Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou and many others. Angelou titled her 1969 autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings after a line in Dunbar’s poem Sympathy.
By the end of the 19th century, Orville’s fascination with flight took full form. On Dec. 17, 1903, Orville made the world’s first controlled, powered, sustained flight on the windswept beaches of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.
Dunbar died on Feb. 9, 1906, at the age of 33 from complications brought on by tuberculosis. He is buried in Dayton at Woodland Cemetery.
Orville Wright lived on for more than four decades, dying from a heart attack at age 76 on Jan. 30, 1948. He is also interred at Woodland.
Although Woodland Cemetery covers roughly 225 acres, the world’s first internationally acclaimed black poet and the world’s first airplane pilot rest mere steps from one another in section 101.
Here they lie. Reunited in the end. Old friends. Two Central High School classmates determined to test the world’s boundaries.