The Dunbar Associates was an African American social club started in 1937 by Ernest Collins who also founded the Dunbar Quartet, a music group noted for their beautiful singing of spirituals. Collins named the group in honor of Paul Lawrence Dunbar, a poet, novelist, and playwright in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, who received international acclaim for his work including Majors and Minors and Lyrics of Lowly Life. The Quartet performed in churches, at teas and parties, and on the local radio. The Dunbar Associates organization featured other musical groups including the Dunbarettes, a women’s group; the Dunbar Juniors, a singing group made up of boys from the neighborhood; and the Dunbar Serenaders. The club organized sports and recreation teams including basketball and bowling, and they sponsored inter-club whist tournaments. Initially located at 52 Brookline Street, the clubhouse headquarters moved to 185 Franklin Street in 1939 and remained there until the early 1960s. The property had a large yard providing children the only play area in the neighborhood at the time. The clubhouse hosted a variety of events such as weddings, birthday parties, and lectures, as well as a rally supporting John F. Kennedy in his 1952 race for U.S. Senator.
The Dunbar Associates also sponsored dances all over New England, engaging many big-name swing bands, starting with Chick Webb and Ella Fitzgerald in 1938. Held at the Cambridge Elks Lodge Ballroom, this event was also a celebration of the organization’s first year anniversary. An article in the Cambridge Chronicle credited the Dunbar Associates for bringing to Cambridge “its biggest dancing attraction in history.” In a reminiscence written by Ernest’s wife, Gertrude, she explained, ”the dances in those days were really enjoyable, happy, pleasant evenings, something to take the stress of the days away. It was a time to dance and enjoy each other’s company, make new friends and see old acquaintances.”
Di Natale Family Papers
Cambridge Chronicle, May 19, 1938, and May 26, 1938, June 15, 1939, May 1939
Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/paul-laurence-dunbar