Dunbar-Nelson, Alice (Ruth Moore)

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DUNBAR-NELSON, Alice (Ruth Moore)

Born 19 July 1875, New Orleans, Louisiana; died 18 September 1935, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Also wrote under: Alice Dunbar, Alice Ruth Moore

Daughter of Joseph and Patricia Wright Moore; married Paul L.Dunbar, 1889 (divorced); Robert J. Nelson, 1916

The younger of two daughters of middle-class working parents, Alice Dunbar-Nelson attended public schools and Straight College, New Orleans. After graduation, she began to teach and to submit poetry to the Boston Monthly Review. One of these poems and the accompanying photograph attracted Paul Dunbar, then a young poet. He wrote her, conversationally raising literary issues, and enclosed a copy of his "Phyllis." This began a friendship that led to marriage.

Dunbar-Nelson separated from Dunbar after a quarrel in 1902, and returned to teaching—she had taught kindergarten at Victoria Earle Matthews' White Rose Mission in New York—becoming head of the English Department at Howard High School in Wilmington, Delaware. She retained this position for 18 years until she was fired for defying an order to abstain from political activity.

During World War I, Dunbar-Nelson became involved in organizing black women on behalf of the U.S. Council of National Defense. She was the first black woman to serve on Delaware's Republican State Committee. She became associate editor of the Wilmington Advocate, a weekly newspaper published by her second husband and dedicated to the achievement of equal rights for blacks. She also wrote a weekly column for the Washington (D.C.) Eagle and contributed occasional pieces to the American Methodist Episcopal Church Review. Her later years were devoted to social work, especially with delinquent black girls, and to the cause of world peace.

Dunbar-Nelson's reply to Dunbar's first letter to her set forth her views on the literary use of "the Negro problem": "I haven't much liking for those writers that wedge the Negro problem and social equality and long dissertations on the Negro in general into their stories. It is too much like a quinine pill in jelly… .Some how when I start a story I always think of my folk characters as simple human beings, not of types of a race or an idea, and I seem to be on more friendly terms with them." Dunbar-Nelson's letter also mentioned the forthcoming publication of her first book, Violets, and Other Tales (1895). In accord with her philosophy, the book presents "simple human beings" caught in universal dilemmas such as poverty and love betrayed.

While many of the 12 and 17 tales and sketches in Violets, and Other Tales are romantic and slight, they give evidence of a fresh, lively style. Noteworthy in this collection for their sprightliness and originality are the humorous "In Unconsciousness," a mock epic inspired by a tooth extraction, and "The Woman," a lively meditation on the independent woman. This piece decries "this wholesale marrying of girls in their teens, this rushing into an unknown plane of life to avoid work," and reassures readers that an independent, intelligent woman, a lawyer or doctor, does not lose her ability to love when she gains a vocation.

During the period of her marriage to Dunbar, Dunbar-Nelson published her second collection, The Goodness of St. Rocque, and Other Stories (1899), 14 local-color stories of New Orleans life. These are crisply written sketches, portraying struggling, heroic characters trapped in difficulties. Most have a surprise twist at their conclusions.

While teaching at Howard High School, Dunbar-Nelson edited two collections of poems and prose for oratory students, Masterpieces of Negro Eloquence (1914) and The Dunbar Speaker and Entertainer (1920). Included in the latter are several pieces by Dunbar-Nelson, many of them (such as the one-act play Mine Eyes Have Seen) expressing conventional patriotic sentiments and racial pride. The short lyric "I Sit and Sew," while sharing the conventional patriotism of the others, is also a statement of a woman chafing at the limited range of appropriate female activity; it has an intensity, freshness, and power that the other pieces lack.

Dunbar-Nelson was a pioneer in the black short story tradition. Her second volume shows an increase in power, which promised further development, had she continued to write in this genre. Instead, an energetic woman of diversified talents, she devoted her later life to journalism and political and social activism.


Bernikow, L. The World Split Open: Four Centuries of Women Poets in England and America (1974). Brawley, B., Paul Laurence Dunbar (1936). Brown, H. Q., Homespun Heroines, and Other Women of Distinction (1926). Hull, G. T., ed., The Works of Alice Dunbar-Nelson (3 vols., 1988). Kerlin, R. T., Negro Poets and Their Poems (1935). Loggins, V., The Negro Author (1931). Martin, J., ed., A Singer in the Dawn (1975). Shockey, A. A., Afro-American Writers, 1746-1933 (1989). Stetson, E., ed., Black Sister (1981). Whiteman, M., A Century of Fiction by American Negroes, 1853-1952: A Descriptive Bibliography (1955).

Reference works:

NAW (1971). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).

Other references:

Delaware History (Fall—Winter 1976).


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