From NKAA, Notable Kentucky African Americans Database (main entry)
Matilda Dunbar.pdf

Dunbar, Matilda Jane Burton Murphy

(born: October 5, 1845  -  died: February 24, 1934) 

Mother of Paul Laurence Dunbar, she was born Matilda Jane Burton in Fayette County, KY, the daughter of Willis and Eliza Burton. She was not sure of her exact birthdate. Matilda was enslaved by David Glass in Shelby County, KY. She was married to William W. Murphy when she was about 16-years-old. Their son William Travis Murphy was born in 1864 in Shelbyville, KY. Matilda gained her freedom with the ratification of the 13th Amendment. She left Kentucky, and a second son, Robert Small Murphy, was born in Dayton, OH in 1866. The family lived at 311 Howard Street.

Matilda Murphy had come to Dayton in the spring of 1866 to live with her mother, Eliza Burton, according to the National Park Service webpage dedicated to Matilda. Matilda's brother Robert M. Burton had also come to Dayton in 1866 after his military service. Their mother Eliza Burton had been in Dayton since at least 1862 when she was listed on p. 67 in Williams' Dayton Directory for 1862-63. She was living at 47 Howard Street.

Matilda Murphy is listed as a widow in Williams' Dayton Directory for 1868-69, p. 182. She remained in Ohio and a few years later married Army veteran Joshua Dunbar on December 23, 1871 in Montgomery County, OH (Dayton). Their marriage certificate is online at Joshua and Matilda were the parents of Paul L. Dunbar (1872-1906) and Elizabeth Florence Dunbar (1874-1876).

Matilda and Joshua Dunbar separated in 1874. Matilda was employed as a laundress during the day and attended the Ziegler Street school at night. She still lived at 311 Howard Street, according to Williams' Dayton City Directory for 1874, p. 140. Her widowed mother Eliza Burton lived with Matilda and her family at 311 Howard Street as early as 1873. Eliza Burton is last listed on p. 99 of Williams' Dayton City Directory for 1876-7

In 1887 Matilda's second son Robert Murphy moved to Chicago, where he was employed as a waiter. In 1893 Matilda's oldest son William Murphy joined his brother in Chicago, and was also employed as a waiter. Matilda's son, Paul married Alice Ruth Moore in 1898; Matilda lived with the couple in Washington, D. C. The arrangement did not last very long, however. In the 1900 U.S. Census, Matilda Dunbar was enumerated as living with her son Robert and his family at 59 Dearborn Street in Chicago. 

By 1910, according to the U.S. Census, Matilda Dunbar was again living in Dayton; she and her son Paul went back there in 1904 and purchased a home. Paul died in 1906. Matilda's son William died in Chicago in 1932, according to the Illinois Deaths and Still Births Index (Ancestry).

Matilda Jane Burton Murphy Dunbar died in 1934. She outlived all but one of her children. She had kept Paul's library and home until her death. The home, the Dunbar House, is the first publicly-owned historic site to honor an African American (Dayton). After Matilda Dunbar's death, the home went to her only remaining son Robert, who later sold the home, and it became a state museum. Robert Murphy became a widow when his wife died in 1940.

In 2006, the grave of Matilda's youngest child and only girl, Elizabeth Florence Dunbar (1874-1876), was placed next to her mother's grave in Woodland Cemetery in Dayton. The child had died at the age of 2 from sickness and malnutrition and had been buried in a potter's field. Shortly after Elizabeth's death, her parents divorced.

For more see In Black and White. A guide to magazine articles, newspaper articles, and books concerning Black individuals and groups, 3rd ed.; African American Women: a Biographical Dictionary (1993), by D. Salem; Mrs. Dunbar, mother of noted Dayton poet, taken by death," The Herald, 2/24/1934, front page and p. 2; M. McCarty, "Dunbar family together," Dayton Daily News, 2/12/06, Local section, p. B1; "Poet Dunbar's kin buried in Chicago," The Herald, 2/20/1940, p. 13; and the webpages "Matilda Burton Murphy Dunbar" and "Dunbar Family History," both by the National Park Service, Dayton Aviation Heritage.

Kentucky County & Region

Read about Shelby County, Kentucky in Wikipedia.

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Cite This NKAA Entry:

“Dunbar, Matilda Jane Burton Murphy,” Notable Kentucky African Americans Database, accessed May 22, 2024,

Last modified: 2023-07-12 14:31:21