Alice Dunbar Nelson, 1875-1935

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Woman Category: Activism & Feminism and Literature & PoetryWoman Tags: African-American Women, Editor, Educator, Journalist, NYC Women, Playwright, and Poet

  • HerStory

    A poet, journalist, playwright, and political activist. Associated with the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s.

    Alice Ruth Moore was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, the daughter of a Creole seaman and a former enslaved black seamstress. After graduating high school at 14, she attended a teacher-training program at Straight University, and at 17, she began teaching at an Elementary school in New Orleans. She became involved with activism at the Phyllis Wheatley Club and wrote for the Woman’s Era Club newspaper – the first newspaper created for and by African American women. In 1895, she published her first collection of poems, essays, and short stories titled “Violets and Other Tales.” That same year she moved to NYC, where she helped establish the White Rose Mission – a settlement house for colored girls. Furthering her education, she took courses at the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University.
     
    Her writings for the Woman’s Era newspaper caught the attention of the poet and journalist Paul Laurence Dunbar, and in 1898, after two years of correspondence, she moved to live with him in Washington, DC, and they got married. Their relationship fertile their writing but was also disruptive and abusive. He raped her before they got married, and after three years of violent behavior, she left him and moved to Wilmington, Delaware. There, Dunbar taught at various institutes, including Howard High School, the Hampton Institute, and the State College for Colored Students. She never stopped studying, and at 32, she received her M.S degree from Cornell University. In 1913, Dunbar worked as the co-editor and writer for the A.M.E. Review – the African Methodist Episcopal Church’s newspaper. She met poet and civil rights activist Robert J. Nelson, and they got married in 1916.
     
    Although she was always involved in political activism, supporting the women’s rights movement and working toward the empowerment of women of color, it was only in 1918 that Dunbar-Nelson was appointed to an official role in the movement as a representative of the Woman’s Committee of the Council of Defense. In 1920, she became the co-editor of the progressive black newspaper, the “Wilmington Advocate.” In that same year, she published a literary anthology, aiming at black readers, titled “The Dunbar Speaker and Entertainer.” At 45, Dunbar-Nelson was a successful and popular writer, consistently publishing articles, columns, and essays in newspapers as well as in academic journals. Dunbar-Nelson became a speaker at various events, including the 1928 American Negro Labor Congress Forum in Philadelphia. After she moved with her husband to Philadelphia in 1932, her health declined, and two years later, she passed away at the age of 60.
     
    Dunbar-Nelson is a representative of the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Her writing is characterized by complex understandings of race, gender, and ethnicity. In her work, Dunbar-Nelson explored issues that she dealt with as a woman of color, especially her mixed-raced experiences, not belonging here or there. She wrote about her perspective of education opportunity, workplace environment, and social oppression, inspiring generations of black writers to come.
     

    “In every race, in every nation, and in every clime in every period of history there is always an eager-eyed group of youthful patriots who seriously set themselves to right the wrongs done to their race or nation or . . . art or self-expression”

    “In every race, in every nation, and in every clime in every period of history there is always an eager-eyed group of youthful patriots who seriously set themselves to right the wrongs done to their race or nation or . . . art or self-expression”

     


    More Interesting Anecdotes:

    • Her mixed-race heritage is reflected in her writings.
    • She had numerous intimate relationships with women. She was married three times and had 2 children from her third marriage.
    • Her papers are gathered in a collection at the University of Delaware.
    • Her diary, which was published in 1984, provides unique insight into black women’s lives during the 1920s.
    • By 1931 she taught at all levels of education – from elementary, secondary to college levels 1.
    • In 1920, she was removed from her teaching position at Howard High School for attending Social Justice Day in October.
  • More About Her Legacy
    Awards:

    * An honorary member of Delta Sigma Theta sorority

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  • One of Her Landmarks

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  • Alice-Dunbar Nelson papers help connect past to the present

    University of Delaware Library, Museums and Press special collections librarian Jesse Erickson reminds us of the struggles and triumphs that occurred in our own backyard in the life of civil rights, suffragist and Howard High teacher Alice Dunbar-Nelson. #blackhistorymonth

  • Photo credit - Wikipedia

  • Citations and Additional References:
    Poetry Foundation website.
    Wikipedia page.


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