Dunbar-Nelson, Alice (1875–1935)

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Dunbar-Nelson, Alice (1875–1935)

African-American who earned popular acclaim as a Harlem Renaissance poet, but whose talents lay more in the discursive field than in the poetic and whose well-known marriage to Paul Laurence Dunbar was not only tumultuous but short-lived. Name variations: Alice Dunbar or Alice Moore Dunbar. Born Alice Ruth Moore on July 19, 1875, in New Orleans, Louisiana; died on September 18, 1935, of coronary complications at the University of Pennsylvania Hospital; daughter of Joseph Moore (a merchant marine) and Patricia Wright (a seamstress); graduated from Straight College (now Dillard University), New Orleans, 1892; subsequently studied at Cornell, Columbia, the Pennsylvania School of Industrial Art, and the University of Pennsylvania, specializing in English literature, English educational measurements, and psychology; married Paul Laurence Dunbar, on March 8, 1898 (separated 1902, died 1906); secretly married Henry Arthur Callis, on January 19, 1910 (divorced 1911); married Robert J. Nelson, on April 20, 1916 (died 1949); children: (third marriage) Elizabeth Nelson; Bobby Nelson.

Taught school in New Orleans (1892–96); helped found the White Rose Home for Girls in Harlem (1897–98); taught and administered at the Howard High School, Wilmington, Delaware; directed seven summer sessions for in-service teachers at State College for Colored Students (now Delaware State College) and taught two summer sessions at Hampton Institute (1902–20); wrote for and helped edit the A.M.E. Church Review (1913–14); became field organizer for the Middle Atlantic States in the women's suffrage campaign (1915); toured the South as a field representative of the Women's Committee of the Council of National Defense (1918); published poems in Crisis, Ebony and Topaz, Opportunity, Negro Poets and Their Poems, Caroling Dusk, Harlem: A Forum of Negro Life and Others (1917–28); coedited and published the Wilmington Advocate newspaper (1920–22); began her diary (1921); headed the Anti-Lynching Crusaders in Delaware fighting for the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill (1922); directed the Democratic political campaign from New York headquarters (1924); worked as teacher and parole officer at the Industrial School for Colored Girls (1924–28); wrote column "From A Woman's Point of View" (later changed to "Une Femme Dit") in the Pittsburgh Courier (1926); wrote column "As In a Looking Glass" in the Washington Eagle (1926–30); wrote column "So It Seems to Alice Dunbar-Nelson" in the Pittsburgh Courier (1930); named executive secretary for the American Friends Inter-Racial Peace Committee (1928–31).

Selected publications:

(short stories and poems) Violets and Other Tales (Boston: Monthly Review Press, 1895); (short stories) The Goodness of St. Rocque and Other Stories (NY: Dodd, Mead, 1899); "Wordsworth's Use of Milton's Description of Pandemonium" in Modern Language Notes (1909); (edited) Masterpieces of Negro Eloquence (Harrisburg, PA: Douglass, 1914) and The Dunbar Speaker and Entertainer (1920); (two-part article) "People of Color in Louisiana," in The Journal of Negro History (1916–17); (one-act war-propaganda play) Mine Eyes Have Seen (1918); (two-part article on Delaware) "These 'Colored' United States" in The Messenger (1924).

Alice Ruth Moore was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, on July 19, 1875. Her mother Patricia (Wright) Moore , an ex-slave, earned a living as a seamstress and her absent father worked as a sailor. Both of her parents were of mixed racial origin. This ancestry endowed Dunbar-Nelson with a light-complexion and auburn tresses and enabled her easy entrance into Creole society. Her earlier works focus on exploring and examining the intricacies of this society; they also reveal her own ambivalence about complexional differences.

Dunbar-Nelson attended public school in New Orleans, where she graduated from the two-year teacher training program at Straight College (now Dillard University) in 1892. After graduation, she worked as a teacher, a bookkeeper, and a stenographer for a black printing firm. She was also active in musical, religious, and literary arenas. She performed in amateur plays; learned to play piano and cello; wrote a column for a fraternal newspaper; and presided over a church club. In 1895, at age 20, she published her first and best-known volume Violets and Other Tales, a collection of short stories, poems, essays, reviews, and sketches. The next year, she moved to the northeast to continue her education, subsequently studying at Cornell, Columbia, the Pennsylvania School of Industrial Art, and the University of Pennsylvania. She specialized in English literature, psychology, and English educational measurements.

Alice Dunbar-Nelson">

[They say] that men… prefer the soft, dainty, winning, mindless creature who cuddles into men's arms, agrees to everything they say, and looks upon them as a race of gods turned loose upon this earth for the edification of womankind. Well, maybe so, but there is one thing positive, they certainly respect the independent one, and admire her, too, even if it is at a distance, and that in itself is something.

—Alice Dunbar-Nelson

Dunbar-Nelson began teaching at Victoria Earle Matthews ' White Rose Mission (later White Rose Home for Girls) in Harlem, New York, in 1897. On March of 1898, Alice married Paul Laurence Dunbar, America's first nationally recognized black poet. Their romance had begun in 1895 when he saw a picture and poem of hers in a Boston magazine and struck up a correspondence with her. Neither of their mothers approved of the match. Dunbar-Nelson's mother and family considered Paul too dark-skinned and too provincial. Paul reveals his mother's feelings about the prospective marriage in a letter to Alice dated October 29, 1897: "Is my mother pleased at the marriage? Well, dear, to tell the truth, she doesn't hanker after it, but she is reconciled and is prepared to love you. Before I left home she had begun to enter pretty heartily into my enthusiasm." Their marriage was further burdened by their temperamental differences: Paul's medically induced alcoholism; Alice's domineering tendencies; and their infertility. After a series of separations and reconciliations, Alice left Paul in 1902 and remained estranged from him until he died on February 9, 1906. In spite of their tumultuous marriage, they respected each other and the world recognized Alice Dunbar-Nelson as Paul's wife, sending her condolences. Although her status as his widow overshadowed her own outstanding literary achievements, it increased her literary fortunes and gave her publicity.

King, Grace Elizabeth (c. 1852–1932)

American novelist, short story writer, and historian. Born in Louisiana around 1852; died in 1932.

At the turn of the century, Grace Elizabeth King was one of the most prominent of Southern writers, and her books dealt largely with Southern subjects. Her novel Monsieur Motte, which first appeared in the New Princeton Review, was published in book form in 1888. Balcony Stories was then considered one of her best works, along with Tales of a Time and Place. King's historical writings include New Orleans: The Place and the People, and a life of Sieur de Bienville, the founder of New Orleans.

Even before his death, she benefitted from her marriage to Paul Dunbar. They discussed their respective work, collaborated on literary projects, and his agent marketed her fiction. In 1898, her second book of short stories, The Goodness of St. Rocque, was not only advertised as a companion volume to Paul Dunbar's Poems of Cabin and Field, but also brought out by his publisher, Dodd, Mead. Her fascination with Creole culture and tradition is apparent in this volume. The title story, "The Goodness of St. Rocque," features Manuela, the tall, dark heroine visiting a voodoo priestess and the Catholic Saint Rocque to combat the charms of her rival, the blonde and petite Claralie for the attentions of a young man. The story also sketches Creole customs and provides a detailed picture of New Orleans culture. Another story in this volume examines the racial and gender problems that confront Creole women. "Sister Josepha" is a tale about a young novice who comes to the convent as an orphan. She refuses a couple's offer to adopt her when the husband's admiration of her beauty becomes too obvious. After she espies a young man, she begins to question her decision to remain in the convent and decides to run away. Her desire is thwarted when she realizes that she does not know her race, her full name, or her nationality. The story ends with her sad retreat back into the convent. Protagonists' refuge into the convent when plagued by an identity crisis was the resolution

of several Creole stories written by white authors such as George Washington Cable, Kate Chopin , and Grace King . These stories were also embodied in the form of Henriette Delille , who, determined not to become a white man's mistress, fled to a convent, and later, founded the Sisters of the Holy Family, an order for women of color.

The Black critic Vernon Loggins, whose criticism of Dunbar-Nelson's first volume had been negative, commended her second collection for having "some excellent material handled with pleasing effect." He notes that she "found types in New Orleans which [Cable] had neglected, and she treated them in sketches which are frail and at the same time redolent of a delicate sympathy." Dunbar-Nelson's consideration of Creole themes in her early work betrayed a noticeable ambivalence about race. She concealed the racial identity of her Creole female protagonists, preferring to use coded terms such as "dusky-eyed" (denoting a quadroon, one-fourth black individual) to describe them. In her two-part study "People of Color in Louisiana," she explains that Creole is an ambiguous term:

The native white Louisianian will tell you that a Creole is a white man, whose ancestors contain some French or Spanish blood in their veins. But he will be disputed by others…. It appears that to a Caucasian, a Creole is a native of the lower parishes of Louisiana, in whose veins some traces of Spanish, West Indian or French blood runs. The Caucasian will shudder with horror at the idea of including a person of color in the definition, and the person of color will retort with his definition that a Creole is a native of Louisiana, in whose blood runs mixed strains of everything un-American, with the African strain slightly apparent.

Dunbar-Nelson's early reticence about race shifts to a frank, nuanced discussion of the problems of Black Creoles. Published in the Southern Workman (August 1902), "The Pearl in the Oyster" chronicles the fall of a light-skinned Creole who rejects blacks in order to pass as a white politician. Another short story, "Stones of the Village," develops a parallel downfall for Victor Grabert, whose grandmother forbids him to play with yellow and black boys. As an adult, he passes, becomes a prominent jurist, and marries into a white family of good social standing, only to die horribly, erroneously believing that his true identity has been discovered. In an autobiographical essay written around 1929, "Brass Ankles Speaks," Dunbar-Nelson recounts her childhood experience of being rejected by darker-skinned black girls, who assailed her with taunts of "half white nigger." Her ordeal continued throughout college and at work; "Brass Ankles" was neither black enough for blacks nor white enough for whites. According to Dunbar-Nelson, the "'yaller niggers,' the 'Brass Ankles' must bear the hatred of their own and the prejudice of the white race." Given the provocative content of these stories, Dunbar-Nelson was often unable to publish them.

Dunbar-Nelson's literary interests were not confined to Creoles. She wrote stories that featured Irish and Italian immigrants and several pieces dealt with women's rights and roles. The story that most reflects Dunbar-Nelson's commitment to women's equality is "The Woman," a monologue in which the narrator delineates the advantages of being a single woman. The narrator describes the single woman's life as being one of financial, geographical, intellectual, and sexual independence, and concludes by asserting that men may marry weak women, but that they respect independent ones.

By 1902, Alice Dunbar-Nelson resided in Wilmington, Delaware, with her mother, her sister, and her sister's four little children. From 1902 to 1920, she taught at Howard High School (at the time, the only secondary school for blacks in the state) and then served as head of the English department. She supplemented her teaching and supervisory responsibilities with fundraising and playwriting. While overseeing summer sessions for teachers at State College for Colored Students (later Delaware State College), she completed her master's thesis on Milton's influence on Wordsworth at Cornell.

Following intimate liaisons with at least three prominent women, Dunbar-Nelson secretly married Henry Arthur Callis, a man who was 12 years her junior, on January 19, 1910, and divorced him a year later. On April 20, 1916, she married Robert J. Nelson (1873–1949), a race-conscious and politically oriented journalist from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, who was widowed with two children. With "Bobbo," as she affectionately called him, she formed a lasting stable union. Together, they edited a progressive black newspaper, The Wilmington Advocate, from 1920 to 1922, and participated in Delaware politics. During this period, she was involved in several racial, civic, and suffrage activities. She campaigned for women's suffrage (1915), toured the South as a field representative for the Woman's Committee of the Council of National Defense (1918), and made history as the first black woman to sit on the State Republican Committee of Delaware (1920). She was one of the delegates who presented black concerns to President Warren G. Harding at the White House (1921) and headed the Delaware Crusaders for the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill (1922). With female colleagues, she established the Industrial School for Colored Girls in Marshallton, Delaware, where she taught and worked as a parole officer from 1924 to 1928. She also joined several prominent organizations, such as the National Association of Colored Women and the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority.

Despite her versatility, sophistication, elegance, educational background, and experience, Dunbar-Nelson struggled against the societal constraints that denied opportunities for black women. In 1927, she was refused a public-school teaching position because white male physicians determined her to be medically unfit. The Pittsburgh Courier did not want to pay her for her column, and, in October 1920, she lost her teaching position when she attended Social Justice Day in Marion, Ohio. Her experience as executive secretary of the American Inter-Racial Peace Committee from 1928 to 1931 was marred by male insistence on monitoring her appearance for propriety. Even Robert, her usually supportive husband, expected her to juggle domestic concerns and newspaper duties.

Dunbar-Nelson allowed neither sexism nor racism to sidetrack her. She contributed articles to newspapers and journals, edited volumes illuminating black oratory, wrote plays and speeches, and received recognition as a Harlem Renaissance poet. She completed, but never published, four novels: The Confession of a Lazy Woman (1899), A Modern Undine (1901–03), Uplift (1930–31), and This Lofty Oak (1932–33). She also kept a diary that records her thoughts in 1921 and between 1926 and 1931. Prominent members of the black community welcomed her as their equal.

The financial difficulties that marked Dunbar-Nelson's life came to an end in January 1932, when her husband was appointed to the Pennsylvania State Athletic (Boxing) Commission. She and her family, composed of Robert, her sister, and her sister's children, moved into a comfortable home and enjoyed economic security. Three years later, Alice Dunbar-Nelson died of a heart condition at the University of Pennsylvania hospital on September 18, 1935.


Bryan, Violet Harrington. The Myth of New Orleans in Literature: Dialogues of Race and Gender. Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 1993, pp. 63–78.

——. "Race and Gender in the Early Works of Alice Dunbar-Nelson," in Louisiana Women Writers. Edited by Dorothy H. Brown and Barbara C. Ewell. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1992, pp. 120–138.

Dunbar-Nelson, Alice. Give Us Each Day: The Diary of Alice Dunbar-Nelson. Edited by Gloria T. Hull. NY: Norton, 1984.

Hull, Gloria T. "Shaping Contradictions: Alice Dunbar-Nelson and the Black Creole Experience," in New Orleans Review. Vol. XV. Spring 1988, pp. 34–37.

——. Color, Sex, and Poetry: Three Women Writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.

Whitlow, Roger, "Alice Dunbar-Nelson: New Orleans Writer," in Regionalism and the Female Imagination. Edited by Emily Toth. New York, 1985, pp. 109–125.

suggested reading:

Blassingame, John W. Black New Orleans, 1860–1880. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1973.

Giddings, Paula. When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America. New York, 1984.

Hull, Gloria, ed. The Works of Alice Dunbar-Nelson. 3 vols. NY: Oxford University Press, 1988.


The Alice Dunbar-Nelson papers are located in Special Collections, Morris Library, University of Delaware, Newark, Delaware.

Uche Egemonye , freelance writer and graduate student in American History, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia

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Dunbar-Nelson, Alice (1875–1935)

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