Wendell P. Dabney
Posted On: 09/22/2017 - 11:28am, Posted By: Christine Engels, Archives Manager, Manuscripts Department
Wendell Phillips Dabney was born in Richmond, Virginia in 1865, the son of former slaves. Unlike most former slaves who continued to work on the plantations for low pay, Dabney's father had the necessary training and reputation as a cook and bartender to allow him to open his own catering business after the Civil War and earn a higher standard of living for his family. Young Wendell Dabney, who worked for his father during the summers, was erudite, intelligent, an avid reader, and a talented guitar player. After high school, he attended Oberlin College, where he was one of only fifteen African American students. Although Dabney was an exemplary student and broadened his musical talents to include the violin, mandolin and banjo, he left after one year to help support his family. For the next several years, he worked in Virginia as a waiter and then as a teacher, until he moved to Boston to start a music studio.
In 1894, Dabney came to Cincinnati to settle some business regarding property willed to his mother. He intended to stay only for a few months. During a trip to Indiana, however, he met Nellie Foster Jackson, a widow with two sons, whom he eventually married in 1897. Dabney decided to settle in Cincinnati, so he improved the property left to his mother and established a music studio. He began teaching music to many prominent Cincinnati families and eventually became involved in politics. Dabney served as the first African American city paymaster and was the first president of the local chapter of the NAACP.
In an attempt to increase attention to issues of the African American community, Dabney entered the field of newspaper publishing. In 1902, he started The Ohio Enterprise, predecessor to The Union, which Dabney published from 1907 until 1952. Although Dabney accepted funds from the Republican Party for the newspaper and endorsed Republican candidates, he remained critical of their treatment of African Americans and used the paper as a voice of protest for the African American community in general. In the early 1920s, however, Dabney broke with the Republicans and shortly thereafter worked with the City Charter Committee. Until his death in 1952, Dabney continued to struggle against prejudice and used The Union to champion the cause of African Americans.
In addition to his publishing activities, Dabney also wrote books and composed music. He compiled and published Cincinnati’s Colored Citizens in 1926 and wrote Maggie L. Walker: The Woman and Her Work, a biography of one of his longtime friends who became the first African American woman to own a bank. Dabney also published Chisum’s Pilgrimage and Others, a collection of his writings from The Union. The music he composed includes You Will Miss the Colored Soldier; My Old Sweetheart; and God, Our Father, a Prayer.
Dabney’s manuscript collection contains correspondence to and from him, his family history including a rough autobiographical sketch of his boyhood years, and some music composed by him.
Please see our Guide to African American Resources at the Cincinnati History Library and Archives for more information on Cincinnati’s African American history.