A Local Toledo Sensation
Dr. Henry Tobey took on a difficult job when he agreed to head the newly built Toledo State Hospital in 1885. This facility for the mentally ill was the first of its kind in America to break with the cell-like, prison environment of previous public hospitals of its kind. Instead of a central building that housed all the inmates, Toledo State Hospital was designed as a complex of cottages surrounding shared dining halls. As stated in the hospital's annual report, "We have sought in the construction to eliminate so far as possible all the prison-like appearances so prevalent in the old-style hospitals, and in treatment to substitute kindness for force, and to omit to the farthest extent possible all restraints, and to give our people all the amusements we could devise." Laudable ideals indeed, though how they actually fared alongside the daunting task of running a hospital for 1,000 patients whose main illnesses were poorly understood and mostly untreatable is not well documented.
Tobey's interest in Dunbar seemed to grow out of both his recognition of Dunbar's immense talent and his political interest in overcoming racial prejudice. It was Tobey who first raised the issue of race in a letter to Dunbar:
"When I first received your book I learned from the donor that, in a biblical sense, God Almighty has placed the stamp of Cain upon you, or, in other words, your skin is black...I am so thoroughly Democratic in my sentiments that race or condition with me ‘cuts but little figure’ in my estimation of men." (July 6, 1895)
Tobey invited Dunbar to the State Hospital to read for his patients in the spring of 1895. One of the stories told about that visit, though it cannot be firmly documented, is that Tobey sent a carriage to the Toledo railroad station to pick up Dunbar and waited with Charles Cotrill, a prominent member of Toledo's African-American community, for it to return. When Dunbar stepped down from the coach, Tobey exclaimed, "Thank God, he's black!" Cottrill was properly offended, and Tobey tried to save his embarrassment by saying, "Whatever genius he may have cannot be attributed to the white blood he may have in him," a comment that probably did not help much with the lighter-skinned Cottrill.
But Tobey's literary appreciation did seem sincere as well. "I believe you possess real poetical instinct," Tobey wrote:
"In these modern times, when it seems the chief aim and object of man is to obtain the Almighty Dollar, poets and poetry are below par and by the common mass of mankind their real intrinsic value is not appreciated. This condition of society I very much deplore, as I look upon poetry as only a higher philosophy: so subtle, so ethereal, so divine, that our creator has endowed only a few of our kind with the sacred trust of translating to the masses a representation of the joys and sorrows that every heart has felt….I have read your poems again and again, and the more I read them the more I recognize the divinity that stirs within you." (July 6, 1895)
Like Thatcher, Tobey felt compelled to offer Dunbar some unsolicited advice, saying, "When I was in Dayton I learned that your ambition is to become a lawyer. The world is already too full of lawyers for its good, peace or welfare. What we need is [sic] more persons to interpret Nature and Nature's God."
Along with his first letter, Tobey enclosed a check for $5.00, a seemingly small sum to us today, but an amount that made a world of difference for Dunbar at the time. Dunbar himself explained what this meant to him:
"The time for the meeting of the Western Association of Writers was at hand. I am a member and thought that certain advantages might come to me by attending. All day Saturday and all day Sunday I tried every means to secure funds to go. I tried every known place, and at last gave up and went to bed Sunday night in despair. But strangely I could not sleep, so about half-past eleven, I arose and between then and 2 A.M., wrote the paper which I was booked to read at the Association. Then, still with no suggestion of any possibility of attending the meeting, I returned to bed and went to sleep about four o'clock. Three hours later came your [Tobey's] letter with the check that took me to the desired place."