Dunbar-Nelson, Alice 1875–1935
Alice Dunbar-Nelson 1875–1935
Author, poet, journalist, teacher, civil rights activist
Bright, bold, and beautiful, Alice Dunbar-Nelson had a racially ambiguous appearance and well-heeled rearing that allowed her to move easily between various social classes, ethnicities, and races in late-nineteenth-and early-twentieth-century America. Her experiences allowed her a unique perspective on society that she captured with uncanny precision, feeling, insight, and imagination in her writing. At the core of each of her works is a narrator. Whether it is herself, someone she knew, or someone she invented, her narrators lure readers into the lives of Americans whom they otherwise would not have had the inclination or opportunity to know during their real-life experience. To follow Dunbar-Nelson’s prose is to embark on a virtual journey into the little-known neighborhoods and homes of her era, witnessing upclose the timeless struggles, failings, sorrows, hopes, and valor of ordinary people—black, white, Creole, Cajun, the newly immigrated, or ethnically unspecified.
Readers become quiet, watchful, and uncomfortable visitors to Dunbar-Nelson’s real and imagined experiences and students to her conclusions about society. Her narrator’s voice, then and now, seamlessly moves from one community and human experience to the next, carrying from them cries, smells, and particles to readers who might otherwise ignore or forget them. In her 1998 MELUS essay Kristina Brooks described Dunbar-Nelson’s method of affecting the reader by “Putting the reader in his or her place, typically outside of the community she depicts, Dunbar-Nelson does not just describe the divisive effects of rigidly maintained group identities. She makes the reader feel ‘out of place’ and thus forced to recognize just what economic, ethnic, and social place he or she is in. From such a self-conscious position, the reader can see not only quaintness, but can also recognize his or her relationship to Dunbar-Nelson’s palette of local colors.”
Dunbar-Nelson was born Alice Ruth Moore on July 19, 1875, in New Orleans, Louisiana, to Patricia Wright, a seamstress, and Joseph Moore, a merchant marine. Her middle-class status and light appearance gave her access to the entire gamut of diverse class, racial, and ethnic classes in New Orleans society. By the time she
At a Glance…
Born on July 19, 1875, in New Orleans, LA; died on September 18, 1935, in Philadelphia, PA; married Paul Laurence Dunbar, March 8, 1898 (separated, 1902); married Henry Arthur Callis, January 1910; (divorced, 1911); married Robert J. Nelson, April 1916. Education: Straight University, nursing and teaching degree, 1890; Cornell University, MA, 1890s; postgraduate study at Pennsylvania School of Industrial Art and University of Pennsylvania, 1890s-1900s.
Career: New Orleans public schools, LA, teacher, 1988-96; writer, 1895-1935; New York City public schools, teacher, 1897; Wilmington public schools, DE, teacher, 1902-20; various black colleges, teacher, 1902-20.
Memberships: Women’s Committee on the Council of Defense; Delaware’s State Republican Committee, 1920; American Friends Inter-Racial Peace Committee, executive secretary, 1928-31.
was 15, she graduated from Straight College in New Orleans, where she had been trained in teaching and nursing. In her free time, she edited the woman’s page of the New Orleans Journal of the Lodge and played the violin-cello and mandolin. From 1892 to 1896, she taught school in her hometown. Later, she would earn a master’s degree from Cornell University and also attend the Pennsylvania School of Industrial Art and the University of Pennsylvania.
In 1895, at age twenty, Dunbar-Nelson published Violets and Other Tales, a collection of her short stories and poems. In much of her early work, weighty in romantic imaging, she employs the image of violets to represent love. The title story, “Violets,” is about a young woman in love for the first time. The woman presents her suitor with a bouquet of violets and a lock of her hair, tied together with a blue ribbon. When her suitor leaves her for a woman with a more robust economic future, the young woman dies from a broken heart. Later the suitor finds the dried bouquet and asks his wife if they came from her. Responding that she hates flowers, she tells her husband to burn them, destroying this last relic of pure love.
In 1899 Dunbar-Nelson published a collection of stories about Creole life, The Goodness of St. Rocque and Other Stories. In the nineteenth century, according to MELUS, Louisiana civil code recognized three social groups: whites, blacks, and gens de couleur libres, or free people of color. The latter group includes the Creole, people of mixed identity, borne from Louisiana’s first French and Spanish settlers. “As an ethnic identity,” MELUS noted, “Creole is and was a category of indeterminate race, and Dunbar-Nelson provocatively emphasizes the probability—but not the certainty—of African influence.” It is no wonder that, given her ethnically ambiguous physical features, Dunbar-Nelson would identify with the experiences of Louisiana’s Creole people.
In 1895 writer Paul Laurence Dunbar, two years Dunbar-Nelson’s senior, began corresponding with her after seeing her poem and photograph in the Boston Monthly Review, initiating a two-year courtship that culminated with their meeting in New York in 1897. Dunbar-Nelson had moved to Brooklyn to teach at Public School 83. She met Dunbar for the first time on the eve of his departure for a reading tour in England. Dunbar-Nelson gave him violets, and the couple became secretly engaged. While in New York, Dunbar-Nelson co-founded the White Rose Mission (later called the White Rose Home for Girls in Harlem). On March 8, 1898, she quietly married Dunbar and abandoned her students mid-term (at Public School 66 now) to move with him to Washington, D.C.
Dunbar-Nelson differed from her husband in both appearance and literary style, hers both racially and ethnically mild, and his distinctly black. Their contrasting experiences and reactions to life set a rift between them that became insurmountable for them to overcome. “His isn’t the only heart she stole with her alabaster skin and auburn hair, and only the tiniest trace of Africa in her features,” according to Black Issues Book Review. “Here and there when it got her into [sic] places such as the opera or art museum, she passed for white, slipping easily through the doors of places where Paul, with his deep brown skin, full nose and lips, would have been turned away with a snarl and a slur.” Their own families were at odds with one another, and according to Black Issues Book Review, Dunbar-Nelson reportedly complained bitterly in private about Dunbar’s philandering and drinking. Their hostile exchanges even exploded into violence.
Both privately (in letters) and publicly, Dunbar-Nelson denounced Dunbar’s frequent employment of black dialect in his fiction and poetry. Her disdain for this technique was communicated to Dunbar early on. In a letter to him in May of 1895, she wrote, “You ask my opinion about the Negro dialect in literature? Well, frankly, I believe in everyone following his own bent. If it be so that one has a special aptitude for dialect work why it is only right that dialect work should be a specialty. But if one should be like me—absolutely devoid of the ability to manage dialect, I don’t see the necessity of cramming and forcing oneself into that plane because one is a Negro or a Southerner.” In the same letter, she likened stereotypical treatment of blacks in literature to “a quinine pill in jelly.” In a January of 1929 journal entry, Dunbar-Nelson reported that the Dunbar dialect “[m]akes me sick.” She left her husband in 1902 and moved to Wilmington, Delaware. She would never again see Dunbar, who died from tuberculosis in 1906.
Over the next 18 years Dunbar-Nelson served as a teacher and administrator at Howard High School. She also directed seven summer teaching sessions at State College for Colored Students (later to become Delaware State College) and two summer sessions at Hampton Institute. In Wilmington, Dunbar-Nelson met and married Henry Arthur Callis in 1910. They became estranged from each other in 1911. On April 20, 1916, she married journalist Robert J. Nelson, with whom she remained until her death in 1935.
Brought Her “Looking Glass” to Readers
With a readership not prone to embrace unpleasant literary depictions of race relations, Dunbar-Nelson was forced to mask cleverly her conclusions and statements about race in her work. Her personal anecdotes as a native of Louisiana and a light-skinned black who passed for white offered her an excellent character and plot landscape to pull from. She tapped autobiographical events as she literarily tricked readers into pondering racial prejudice. “To Dunbar-Nelson’s evident delight, New Orleans society was like Alice’s Looking Glass when it came to Creole identity,” MELUS noted, “with its specific and yet unverifiable qualifications: one could change from black to white, African to French, simply by passing through the boundaries of this Creole social class.”
Indeed, it is in “the confusing realm of the Looking Glass” that Dunbar-Nelson captured and showcased the lives of American blacks, whites, and those who did not live either experience completely. According to MELUS, “Pitting the individual against the mob, the ethnic orphan against the social requirement for a family name, or the non-local reader against the complex and ambiguous local codes, Dunbar-Nelson dramatizes the conflict that flares along fault lines between individual and group identities.”
Dunbar-Nelson’s column, “As in a Looking Glass,” which ran from 1926 to 1930, further presented her careful and thorough analysis of American society. In another regular column, entitled “A Women’s Point of View” (later called “Une Femme Dit”), Dunbar-Nelson wrote in 1926, “We are forced by cruel challenges to explain, show our wares, tell our story, excuse our shortcomings, defend our positions. And we insist that every Negro be a propagandist…. We forget that didacticism is the death of art.” Dunbar-Nelson was able to expose unpleasant and complicated social nuances of race in America without compromising the art of literary form and substance.
Dunbar-Nelson narrated her ‘Steenth Street stories to readers assuming they would be alien to the experience of the American poor. Her narrators remind them of their place as intruders. Pointing this out with the story “The Revenge of James Brown,” which is about a crisis ignited by the opening of the Pure in Heart Mission, MELUS noted that “[T]he reader is introduced to the neighborhood and then put on notice that his or her presence there is as intrusive as the presence of the dreaded missionaries.” The following story excerpt well illustrates the point:
“It was a new sound, the soft rumble of rubber tires and the high-stepping of pampered horses. There was nothing familiar to the denizens of ‘Steenth Street. Aristocracy had invaded its sacred precincts and was trying to establish a precedent down near Third Avenue. Aristocracy in silk-lined gown was walking in and out among the babies and dirty little folks swarming on the curbstones. ‘Steenth Street felt itself disgraced and intruded upon.”
Dunbar-Nelson’s tales of ‘Steenth Street “are both a cause and a consequence of their class position,” according to MELUS. The social boundaries in these stories reflected those of real-life that were more subtle and therefore overlooked by her potential readership as unfairly narrow. Such boundaries included street names, surnames, and occupations and were just as restricting as gender, age, and skin color.
Just as Dunbar-Nelson’s body of work was not limited to fiction and poetry, it was also not exclusively themed on social prejudice and the drama it played out in personal relationships. Much of her work was politically motivated, especially later on as she sought to speak out against injustices stemmed by government. Her well-known poem “I Sit and Sew,” published in 1918 reflected her frustration with the government’s neglect to accept the contributions of women during the World War I years.
Dunbar-Nelson did a great deal to serve her community; she volunteered with the Circle of Negro War Relief in 1918 and the Women’s Commission on the Council of National Defense, organizing volunteerism among black women in the southern states. Earlier, in 1915, her activism included working as field organizer for the Middle Atlantic States in the women’s suffrage movement. In 1920, she began work with the State Republican Committee of Delaware, organizing political activities for black women, and teamed with members of the State Federation of Colored women to found the Industrial School for Colored Girls in Marshalltown, Delaware. The same year she began editing the Wilmington Advocate. Pressing harder against racism in America, Dunbar-Nelson led the Anti-Lynching Crusaders in Delaware in their support for the 1922 Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill. In 1924 she rallied Democratic support among black women and late that summer also published a serial piece in The Messenger, entitled “These ‘Colored’ United States.” Between 1928 and 1931, Dunbar-Nelson frequently toured as a public speaker as part of her commission as executive secretary of the American Friends Inter-Racial Peace Committee.
As Dunbar-Nelson grew more active in championing political causes, she wrote less. Her final piece, “The Big Quarterly in Wilmington,” appeared in the Journal Every Evening in 1932. On September 18, 1935, she died of heart failure at the University of Pennsylvania Hospital. Her ashes were scattered over the Delaware River. Give Us Each Day: The Diary of Alice Dunbar-Nelson was published posthumously.
Those familiar with Dunbar-Nelson’s life and work will likely link her to violets, the flowers whose name she chose as the title of her first published story and for a love poem she wrote 25 years later. A number of American musicians since have set the poem to music.
(as Alice Ruth Moore) Violets and Other Tales, Monthly Review Press, 1895.
(as Alice Dunbar) The Goodness of St. Rocque and Other Stories, Dodd, 1899.
(Editor, as Alice Moore Dunbar) Masterpieces of Negro Eloquence: The Best Speeches Delivered by the Negro from the Days of Slavery to the Present Time, Douglass, 1914.
(Editor and contributor, as Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson) The Dunbar Speaker and Entertainer, J.L. Nichols, 1920, republished as The Dunbar Speaker and Entertainer: Containing the Best Prose and Poetic Selections, G.K. Hall, 1996.
(as Alice Dunbar-Nelson) Give Us Each Day: The Diary of Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Gloria T. Hull, ed., Norton, 1984.
The Works of Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Gloria T. Hull, ed., Oxford University Press, 1988.
Daily Crusader, July 2, 1894.
Advertiser (Elmira, NY), September 18, 1898.
Smart Set, September 1900, pp. 105-106.
Standard Union (Brooklyn), March 7, 1900.
Modern Language Notes, 24, April 1909, pp. 124-125.
A.M.E. Church Review, 30, July 1913, pp. 5-13.
Crisis, 8, September 1914, pp. 238-242.
Paul Laurence Dunbar: Poet Laureate of the Negro Race, special issue of the A.M.E. Church Review, October 1914, pp. 5-19.
Journal of Negro History, October 1916, pp. 361-376; 2 January 1917, pp. 51-78.
Crisis, August 1917, p. 198.
Messenger, August 1924, pp. 244-246, 6; September 1924, pp. 276-279; March 1927, pp. 73-86.
American Inter-Racial Peace Committee Bulletin, October 1929.
Journal Every Evening (Wilmington), August 27, 1932, pp. 8, 9.
Alexander, Eleanor, Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow. The Tragic Courtship and Marriage of Paul Laurence Dunbar and Alice Ruth Moore: A History of Love and Violence Among the African-American Elite, New York University Press, 2002.
Hull, Gloria, ed., “A Chronology,” in Give Us Each Day: The Diary of Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Norton, 1984, pp. 476-469.
Black Issues Book Review, March-April 2002.
CLA Journal, March 1976, pp. 322-326.
MELUS, Summer 1998.
“Alice Moore Dunbar Nelson,” Dictionary of Literary Biography Online, www.galenet.com/servlet/GLD (January 19, 2004).
“Alice Ruth Moore Dunbar Nelson,” Contemporary Authors Online, www.galenet.com/servlet/GLD (January 19, 2004).
“Modern American Poetry,” University of Indiana at Urbana-Champaign, www.English.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/a_f/dunbar-nelson/about.htm (January 19, 2004).
July 19, 1875
September 18, 1935
Writer Alice Dunbar-Nelson was born Alice Ruth Moore in New Orleans, Louisiana. From her father, Joseph Moore, a sailor who never lived with the family, she inherited the light-colored skin and hair that enabled her to pass as white when she wished. Her mother, Patricia Wright Moore, an ex-slave who was part black and part Native American, supported the family as a seamstress. After attending public schools, Dunbar-Nelson graduated from the teachers' training program at Straight College (now Dillard University) in her hometown in 1892. In addition to her teaching she worked as a stenographer and bookkeeper for a black printing firm. She was interested in theater, played the piano and cello, and presided over a literary society. In 1895 Violets and Other Tales, her first collection of stories, essays, and poetry, was published.
In 1896 Dunbar-Nelson moved with her family to West Medford, Massachusetts. The following year she moved to New York, where she taught public school in Brooklyn while she helped her friend Victoria Earle Matthews found the White Rose Mission (later the White Rose Home for Girls in Harlem), where she also taught. On March 8, 1898, she married the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar and moved to Washington, D.C., where he lived. Their romance had been conducted through letters. He first wrote to her after seeing her picture alongside one of her poems in a poetry review. At their first meeting they agreed to marry.
Although it was a stormy marriage, it significantly aided Dunbar-Nelson's literary career. In 1899 her husband's agent had her second collection, The Goodness of St. Roque, published as a companion book to Dunbar's Poems of Cabin and Field. The couple separated in 1902 and Dunbar-Nelson moved to Wilmington, Delaware, where she taught English at the Howard High School. Paul Dunbar died in 1906. In 1910 Dunbar-Nelson married a fellow teacher, Henry Arthur Callis, but that union soon dissolved. In 1916 she married Robert J. Nelson, a journalist with whom she remained until her death in 1935.
Dunbar-Nelson's writings, published continually throughout her life, displayed a wide variety of interests. After studying English literature as a special student at Cornell University, she published "Wordsworth's Use of Milton's Description of Pandemonium" in the April 1909 issue of Modern Language Notes. She also published several pedagogical articles, including "Is It Time for the Negro Colleges in the South to Be Put into the Hands of Negro Teachers?" (Twentieth Century Negro Literature, 1902) and "Negro Literature for Negro Pupils" (The Southern Workman, February 1922). The Journal of Negro History published her historical essay "People of Color in Louisiana" in two parts; the first appeared in October 1916 and the second in January 1917. From 1920 to 1922 she and Nelson published and edited the Wilmington Advocate. In addition, she reviewed contemporary literature and delivered political analyses in columns for the Pittsburgh Courier (1926, 1930) and the Washington Eagle (1926–1930).
In 1920 Dunbar-Nelson lost her job at Howard High School because of her political activity on behalf of women's and civil rights. That year she founded the Industrial School for Colored Girls in Marshalltown, Delaware, which she directed from 1924 to 1928. From 1929 to 1931 she served as executive secretary of the American Inter-Racial Peace Committee, a subsidiary of the American Friends (Quakers) Service Committee. She used this position to organize the National Negro Music Festival in 1929 and to engage in a ten-week cross-country speaking tour in 1930. In 1932 she moved to Philadelphia, where her husband was a governor appointee to the Pennsylvania Athletic Commission. Her lifelong interest in the African-American oral tradition prompted her to publish Masterpieces of Negro Eloquence in 1914 and The Dunbar Speaker and Entertainer in 1920. She was a member of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority and the Daughter Elks. Dunbar-Nelson is often considered a poet of the Harlem Renaissance. Her two most anthologized poems are "Sonnet" (often called "Violets"), and "I Sit and Sew." Her diary, published in 1984, is an invaluable source of information about her life.
Brooks, Kristina. "Alice Dunbar Nelson's Local Colors of Ethnicity, Class, and Place." MELUS 23, no. 2 (1998): 3.
Hull, Gloria T. Color, Sex, and Poetry: Three Women Writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.
michel fabre (1996)