Dabney, Wendell P.
Wendell P. Dabney
Wendell Phillips Dabney, editor of Cincinnati's oldest Negro newspaper The Union for forty-six years, was known for his fearless advocacy for the rights of his people. Described by Joseph T. Beaver Jr. as "a veritable composite of brain, gift, and diligence," he was "more of a philosopher than a politician."
Dabney was born in Richmond, Virginia on November 4, 1865 to former slaves John and Elizabeth Foster Dabney. John opened his own catering business after the Civil War and was able to provide a higher standard of living for his family than most former slaves. John Dabney instilled in young Wendell a respect for religion as a means of overcoming racial injustice. He also influenced his children's political views, especially the idea that Republicans helped blacks while Democrats did not.
Dabney's youth was spent selling newspapers, doing homework, and playing guitar with his older brother. He also sometimes danced alongside future author and tap dance artist Bill "Bojangles" Robinson as they grew up together in Richmond. Dabney was a waiter at a local restaurant in summer, a job that was demoralizing to him because of the way he was treated by the white customers.
In his senior year of high school, Dabney was instrumental in protesting the separation of blacks and whites for graduation. The successful protest resulted in the first combined graduation ever held at the high school. Dabney once stated that he wanted to be a lawyer, a doctor, or a musician, or all three. He said according to Gail Berry, "Law for money, medicine to benefit humanity, and music for pleasure."
Dabney spent 1883 in the preparatory department at Oberlin College. While attending Oberlin, he was first violinist at the Oberlin Opera House and was a member of the Cademian Literary Society. He gained confidence in his abilities and decided that with equal opportunity black Americans could succeed in spite of the racial attitudes of white Americans.
In 1884, Dabney began teaching at a Louisa County Virginia elementary school. He taught guitar as well as his regular class schedule. He had never studied a note and admittedly knew nothing about counterpoint, base or harmony, according to Joseph Beaver. As quoted by Beaver, Dvorak, the music director and composer, once said of Dabney, "You break all the rules, yet your technique, I must admit, is superb, and your style matchless."
- Born in Richmond, Virginia on November 4
- Enters preparatory department at Oberlin College
- Begins teaching elementary school and guitar
- Opens music school in Boston
- Works with Frederick Douglass on Chicago World's Fair exhibition
- Moves to Cincinnati to oversee Dumas Hotel
- Becomes Cincinnati's first African American license clerk
- Marries Nellie Foster Jackson and adopts her two sons
- Serves as paymaster in Department of Treasury in Cincinnati
- Establishes his newspaper The Union
- Becomes first president of the Cincinnati branch of NAACP
- Attends eighty-fourth birthday party honoring his achievements
- Receives honor by the National Convention of Negro Publishers
- Dies in Cincinnati, Ohio on June 5
In 1890, Dabney left Richmond and opened a music school in Boston for amateur and professional musicians. In 1893, he worked on an exhibition with Frederick Douglass for the Chicago World's Fair. In 1894, Dabney moved to Cincinnati to oversee property his mother had inherited from her aunt Serena Webb. This property, the Dumas Hotel, was built in the early 1840s and was Ohio's only hotel owned by an African American. It had served as a station for the Underground Railroad by which slaves were aided in their flight from their masters. Dabney installed a gymnasium in one part of the hotel and used the rest as a convention and meeting hall.
Dabney decided to stay in Cincinnati, and in August 1897, he married Nellie Foster Jackson. Dabney adopted Nellie's two sons. Needing additional income, Dabney used his musical knowledge to teach music courses for wealthy white Cincinnati residents. Songs he wrote were published by the George Jaberg and Wurlitzer Music companies.
He gave up his music career in 1895 when he became Cincinnati's first African American license clerk. From 1898 to 1923, Dabney served as assistant, then head paymaster in the Cincinnati Department of Treasury. He was able to save money to start his own daily newspaper.
Hoping to bring attention to issues of the African American community, Dabney started The Ohio Enterprise, then on February 13, 1907 Dabney established The Union. His motto for the newspaper, according to Eric Jackson, was: "For no people can become great without being united, for in union there is strength." From 1907 to 1952, The Union was influential in shaping both political and social opinions of Cincinnati's African American citizens. In the beginning Dabney accepted funds from the Republican Party while remaining critical of its treatment of African Americans. He decided to break with the Republicans and in 1925 became affiliated with the Independent Party.
Dabney was the first president of the Cincinnati branch of the NAACP, established in 1915. The NAACP staged several demonstrations against problems such as political injustice, racial violence, and segregated housing.
Dabney's writings reflected his interests in the experiences of African Americans in Cincinnati. He wrote that in spite of the conditions in Cincinnati, in spite of the racial violence and political injustice, African American Cincinnatians had established a lively and stable community. He wrote on race relations, discrimination, segregation, and urbanization.
Joseph Beaver, who worked at The Union as an office boy for several years, wrote that Dabney had on his office walls a galaxy of photos of his friends, both the famous and the not-so-famous. They included photos of W. C. Handy, "Father of the Blues"; Bill "Bojan-gles" Robinson, author and tap dancer; Philippa Schuyler, child protégé artist and composer; W. E. B. Du Bois, American scholar and educator; Peter Jackson, heavyweight boxer; Paul Lawrence Dunbar and Langston Hughes, poets; Madam Hattie Walker, bank president in Virginia; and General Antonio Maceo, Cuba's liberator.
In The Union, Dabney wrote urging blacks to be civil in conduct. According to Gail Berry, he said: "Many of us talk so much about our civil rights that we forget about our civic duties." He also said: "We fight for our rights, why not so conduct ourselves as to cause the whites to see the injustice of withholding them?" Regarding critics who complained that the paper was all about Dabney, Beaver replied, "To feature oneself is not to say one necessarily praises oneself—but rather, he presents himself, his experiences, his ideas and opinions, on a public scale, as it were, for others to weigh."
On November 4, 1949, more than four hundred people gathered to honor Dabney with a celebration of his eighty-fourth birthday. In January 1950, the National Convention of Negro Publishers honored Dabney as a pioneer and leader in African American journalism.
On June 5, 1952, Dabney died in Cincinnati. As quoted by Berry, his stepson Leo said of him, "The Union will live on in spirit though the soul of it has fled. Its luster left with Dabney." According to Berry, Dabney was eulogized throughout the country as "an American institution dedicated to an unending crusade against segregation and discrimination and as the foremost advocator for Negro improvement and advancement." Berry quotes George Bernard Shaw as saying, "You can lose a man like that by your own death, but not by his."
Beaver, Joseph T. I Want You to Know Wendell Phillips Dabney. Published in Mexico, D.F., 1958.
Berry, Gail Estelle. Wendell Phillips Dabney: Leader of the Negro Protest. Cincinnati: University of Cincinnati, 1965.
Horstman, Barry M. "Crusading Editor Fought Injustice." The Cincinnati Post, 8 February 1999.
Guide to 20th Century African American Resources at the Cincinnati Historical Society Library: Wendell P. Dabney. http://library.cincymuseum.org/aag/bio/dabney.html (Accessed 12 April 2005).
Jackson, Eric R. "Dabney, Wendell Phillips." American National Biography Online. http://www.anb.org/articles/15/15-00160.html (Accessed 12 April 2005).
Dabney's papers are at the Cincinnati Historical Society Library, Cincinnati, Ohio.
Virginia D. Bailey