March 1, 2011

Dunbar: I remember the occasion well

On March 1, 1901, Paul Laurence Dunbar received a letter inviting him to take part in the Inaugural Parade for William McKinley in honor of his second term as President of the United States. If accepted, Dunbar would be given the honorary rank of colonel. He almost refused. As he wrote years later:

When the document was brought to me, I refused positively to appear in the parade, as I did not consider myself a sufficiently good horseman. So I sent the gentleman away with that answer, but as soon as he was out of the house, my wife and mother made siege upon me, and compelled me to run after him. I remember the occasion well, how I ran down my front steps in housejacket and slippers and calling to my late visitor, told him that I had changed my mind, perforce.

The parade was held three days later, and Dunbar rode a white horse (despite his lack of confidence in his riding). In his speech, McKinley acknowledged the need for blacks and whites to work together:

Strong hearts and helpful hands are needed, and, fortunately, we have them in every part of our beloved country. We are reunited. Sectionalism has disappeared. Division on public questions can no longer be traced by the war maps of 1861. These old differences less and less disturb the judgment... If there are those among us who would make our way more difficult, we must not be disheartened, but the more earnestly dedicate ourselves to the task upon which we have rightly entered. The path of progress is seldom smooth. New things are often found hard to do. Our fathers found them so. We find them so. They are inconvenient. They cost us something. But are we not made better for the effort and sacrifice, and are not those we serve lifted up and blessed?

Only a few months later, McKinley was assassinated. When the President's successor, Theodore Roosevelt, ran for president, Dunbar wrote a campaign poem on his behalf. Roosevelt thanked him by presenting Dunbar with an honorary sword and, exactly four years later to the day, re-appointed him as an honorary colonel. The poet died the next year. His poem for Roosevelt:

There's a mighty sound a comin",
From the East and there's a hummin'
   And a bumtnin' from the bosom of the West,
While the North has given tongue,
And the South will be among
   Those who holler that our Roosevelt is best.

We have heard of him in battle
And amid the roar and rattle
   When the foemen fled like cattle to their stalls:
We have seen him staunch and grim
When the only, battle hymn
   Was the shrieking of the Spanish Mauser balls.

Product of a worthy sireing,
Fearless, honest, brave, untiring —
   In the forefront of the firing, there he stands:
And we're not afraid to show
That we all revere him so,
   To dissentients of our own and other lands.

Now, the fight is on in earnest,
And we care not if the sternest
   Of encounters try our valor or the quality of him,
For they're few who stoop to fear
As the glorious day draws near,
   For you'll find him hell to handle when he gets in fightin' trim.

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