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Joshua Dunbar Gravestone
*The birth of Joshua Dunbar is celebrated on this date in c 1823. He was a Black plasterer and soldier.
Joshua Dunbar was born enslaved in Garrard County Kentucky. Historians know little about his early life, he trained as a plasterer while enslaved. His master allowed him to work away from his home plantation and keep some of his earnings. With the assistance of Quakers, he eventually fled Kentucky, venturing to Upper Canada through the Underground Railroad network. He returned to the United States after the creation of the United States Colored Troops in 1863. Dunbar enlisted in the 55th Massachusetts Colored Regiment on June 5, 1863. Medical officials discharged him on October 28, 1863, for varicose veins, but he reenlisted in the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry Colored Regiment.
He served in this unit until the end of the American Civil War, rising to the rank of sergeant. He was discharged in Clarksville, Texas, on October 3, 1865. For the remainder of his life, he drew a monthly pension of $25.00 for his service. He moved to Dayton, Ohio, where he met Matilda Burton Murphy sometime after 1866. They married on December 24, 1871. Matilda gave birth to poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, their first son, that next June, and one other child, Elizabeth. He attempted to work as a plasterer, but racism left him unemployed for extended periods.
He and Matilda endured a tense, abusive relationship before she left him around 1873; Matilda petitioned for a divorce and received that was on January 9, 1876. This relationship set a poor example for their son Paul’s relationship with Alice Moore. Paul Dunbar memorialized his father and other Black soldiers in his poem “The Colored Soldiers” (1895). Joshua Dunbar died of pneumonia at the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers in Dayton on August 16, 1885. He is buried in Dayton National Cemetery.