Alice Dunbar-Nelson

Alice Dunbar-Nelson (1875-1935), from Paul Laurence Dunbar: Poet laureate of the Negro race, 1914. Courtesy Internet Archive.

Alice Dunbar-Nelson
Alice Dunbar-Nelson.png
Born Alice Ruth Moore
July 19, 1875(1875-Template:MONTHNUMBER-19)
New Orleans, Louisiana, USA
Died September 18, 1935(1935-Template:MONTHNUMBER-18) (aged 60)
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
Nationality United States American
Alma mater Straight University (now Dillard University)
Occupation poet, journalist, political activist

Paul Laurence Dunbar (1898-1906)

Henry A. Callis (1910-191_)
Robert J. Nelson (1916-1935)

Alice Ruth Moore Dunbar-Nelson (July 19, 1875 - September 18, 1935) was an African-American poet, novelist, and essayist.[1] Among the first generation born free in the southern United States after the American Civil War, she was one of the prominent African Americans involved in the artistic flourishing of the Harlem Renaissance. Her first husband was the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar; she then married physician Henry A. Callis; and last married Robert J. Nelson, a poet and civil rights activist.


Alice Ruth Moore was born in New Orleans to middle-class parents Patricia Wright, a seamstress and former slave, and Joseph Moore, a merchant marine, who were people of color and part of the traditional multiracial Louisiana Creole community of the city. At a time when fewer than 1% of Americans went to college, Moore graduated from Straight University (later merged into Dillard University) in 1892 and started work as a teacher in the public school system of New Orleans.

In 1895, her first collection of short stories and poems, Violets and other tales,[2] was published by The Monthly Review. About that time, Moore moved to Boston and then New York.[3] She co-founded and taught at the White Rose Mission (White Rose Home for Girls) in Brooklyn. Beginning a correspondence with the poet and journalist Paul Laurence Dunbar, she ended up moving to Washington, DC to join him when they married in 1898.

She and Paul Dunbar separated in 1902 but were never divorced. He was reported to have been disturbed by her lesbian affairs.[4] Her writing and photo in a literary magazine captured his attention, and in 1898, after corresponding for two years, they married. But the relationship proved stormy, exacerbated by Dunbar’s alcoholism and depression. In 1902, after he beat her nearly to death, she left him, and moved to Delaware.[5] Paul Dunbar died in 1906.

Alice Dunbar then moved to Wilmington, Delaware and taught at Howard High School for more than a decade. In 1910, she married Henry A. Callis, a prominent physician and professor at Howard University, but this marriage ended in divorce.

From 1913 to 1914, Dunbar was coeditor and writer for the A.M.E. Review, an influential church publication produced by the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME Church). In 1916 she married the poet and civil rights activist Robert J. Nelson. She joined him in becoming active in politics in Wilmington and the region. They stayed together for the rest of their lives. From 1920, she coedited the Wilmington Advocate, a progressive black newspaper. She also published The Dunbar Speaker and Entertainer, a literary anthology for a black audience.[6]

Alice Dunbar Nelson was an activist for African Americans' and women's rights, especially during the 1920s and 1930s. While she continued to write stories and poetry, she became more politically active in Wilmington, and put more effort into numerous articles and journalism on leading topics. In 1915, she was field organizer for the Middle Atlantic states for the woman's suffrage movement. In 1918, she was field representative for the Woman's Committee of the Council of Defense. In 1924, Dunbar-Nelson campaigned for the passage of the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill, but the Southern Democratic block in Congress defeated it.[6]

From about 1920 on, she made a commitment to journalism and was a highly successful columnist, with articles, essays and reviews appearing as well in newspapers, magazines, and academic journals.[6] She was a popular speaker and had an active schedule of lectures through these years. Her journalism career originally began with a rocky start. During the late 19th century, it was still unusual for women to work outside of the home, let alone an African-American woman, and the journalism business was a hostile, male-dominated field. In her diary, she spoke about the tribulations associated with the profession of journalism – "Damn bad luck I have with my pen. Some fate has decreed I shall never make money by it" (Diary 366). She discusses being denied pay for her articles and issues she had with receiving proper recognition for her work.

She moved from Delaware to Philadelphia in 1932, when her husband joined the Pennsylvania Athletic Commission. During this time, her health was in decline and she died from a heart ailment on September 18, 1935, at the age of sixty.[6] She is interred at the Wilmington and Brandywine Cemetery in Wilmington, Delaware.[7]

She was made an honorary member of Delta Sigma Theta sorority. Her papers were collected by the University of Delaware.[6]

Her diary was published in 1984 and detailed her life during the years 1921 and 1926 to 1931 (“Alice Dunbar-Nelson”). As one of only two journals of 19th-century African-American women, Dunbar-Nelson's diary provided useful insight into the lives of black women during this time. It "summarizes her position in an era during which law and custom limited access, expectations, and opportunities for black women" (“Alice Dunbar-Nelson”). Her diary addressed issues such as family, friendship, sexuality, health, professional problems, travels, and often financial difficulties.


The rhetorical context of Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s writing includes subject, purpose, audience, and occasion. "Dunbar-Nelson’s writings addressed the issues that confronted African-Americans and women of her time".[8] In essays such as “Negro Women in War Work” (1919), “Politics in Delaware” (1924), “Hysteria,” and “Is It Time for Negro Colleges in the South to Be Put in the Hands of Negro Teachers?” Dunbar-Nelson explored the role of black women in the workforce, education, and the antilynching movement.[8] The examples demonstrate a social activist role in her life. Dunbar-Nelson’s writings express her belief of equality between the races and between men and women. She believed that African-Americans should have equal access to the educational institution, jobs, healthcare, transportation and other constitutionally granted rights.[9]

Much of Dunbar-Nelson's writing was about the color line – both white and black color lines. In an autobiographical piece entitled Brass Ankles, Dunbar-Nelson discusses the difficulties she faced growing up mixed race in Louisiana. She recalls the isolation felt as a child, and the sensation of not belonging to or being accepted by either race. She said as a child she was called a "half white nigger" and that while adults were not as vicious with their name-calling, they were also not accepting of her. Both black and white individuals rejected her for being "too white." White coworkers didn't think she was racial enough and black coworkers did not think she was dark enough to work with her own people.[8] She wrote that being multiracial was hard because "the 'yaller niggers,' the 'Brass Ankles' must bear the hatred of their own and the prejudice of the white race" (Brass Ankles). Much of Alice Dunbar-Nelson's writing was rejected because she wrote about the color line, oppression, and themes of racism. Few mainstream publications would publish her writing because it was not marketable. Dunbar-Nelson was able to publish her writing, however, when the themes of racism and oppression were more subtle.




  • Mine Eyes Have Seen, 1918, one-act play, in The Crisis, 1918;
    • Alexandria, VA: Alexander Street Press, 2001.
  • The Author's Evening at Home. Alexandria, VA: Alexander Street Press, 2003.
  • Gone White. Alexandria, VA: Alexander Street Press, 2004.
  • Love's Disguise. Alexandria, VA: Alexander Street Press, 2004.


  • The Goodness of St. Rocque, and other stories. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1899.
  • Lesie, the choir boy. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 1996.
  • Edouard. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 1996.
  • Great American Stories III: Alice Dunbar-Nelson. Belmont, CA: Lake Education, 1996.
  • Laughing to Stop Myself from Crying. London: X Press, 2000.




  • Caroling Dusk: an antholoty ov verse by Negro poets (edited by Countee Cullen). New York & London: Harper, 1927, (including "I Sit and I Sew")

Collected editionsEdit

  • An Alice Dunbar-Nelson Reader (edited by Ruby Ora Williams & Agnes Moreland Jackson). Washington, DC: University Press of America, 1979.
  • The Works of Alice Dunbar-Nelson (edited by Gloria T. Hall). (3 volumes), New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Letters and journalsEdit

  • Give Us Each Day: The diary of Alice Dunbar-Nelson (edited by Gloria T. Hull). New York: Norton, 1984.

Except where noted, bibliographical information courtesy WorldCat.[10]

Poems by Alice Dunbar-NelsonEdit

  1. Violets

See alsoEdit


  1. Alice Dunbar Nelson, Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopæ Web, June 7, 2014.
  2. "Violets and Other Tales", Monthly Review, 1895. Digital Schomburg.
  3. Culp, Daniel Wallace (1902). Twentieth century Negro literature; or, A cyclopedia of thought on the vital topics relating to the American Negro. Atlanta: J. L. Nichols & Co.. p. 138. 
  4. Lillian Faderman, Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America, Penguin Books, 1991, p. 98.
  5. Highleyman, Liz (13 March 2008), Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Lavender Media, Inc.,, retrieved 5 May 2013 
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 Alice Dunbar-Nelson Papers, University of Delaware Library, accessed 20 April 2009.
  7. "Alice Moore Dunbar Nelson". Find a Grave. Retrieved October 21, 2010. 
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 "About Alice Dunbar-Nelson", Department of English, College of LAS, University of Illinois, 1988.
  9. Modern American Poetry
  10. Search results = au:Alice Dunbar-Nelson, WorldCat, OCLC Online Computer Library Center Inc. Web, Aug. 6, 2013.

External linksEdit

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