Wendell Phillips Dabney was born in Richmond, Virginia in 1865, the son of former slaves. Unlike most former slaves who continued to work on plantations for low pay, Dabney’s father’s training and reputation as a cook and bartender to allow him to open his own catering business following the Civil War. Thus, he was able to provide a higher standard of living for his family than was typical for blacks living in the South.
Wendell Dabney, who worked for his father during the summers, was an intelligent young man. He was 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 only intended to stay for a few months. However, during a trip to Indiana, he met Nellie Foster Jackson, a widow with two sons, whom he eventually married in 1897. Dabney decided to settle in Cincinnati, so he rehabilitated 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 affort to bring attention to issues facing the African-American community, Dabney entered the field of newspaper publishing. In 1902, he started The Ohio Enterprise, predecessor of The Union, which Dabney published from 1907 until his death in 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 black community in general. In the early 1920s, however, Dabney broke with the Republicans and shortly thereafter worked with the City Charter Committee.
In addition to his newspaper career, Dabney also wrote books and composed music. He published “Cincinnati’s Colored Citizens” in 1926 and wrote “Maggie L. Walker: The Woman and Her Work”, the biography of his long time friend who was 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. His musical works include “You Will Miss the Colored Soldier”, “My Old Sweetheart”, and “God, Our Father, a Prayer”.