Authors: Alice Dunbar-Nelson

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American short-story writer, poet, and essayist

Identity: African American

Author Works

Short Fiction:

The Goodness of St. Rocque, and Other Stories, 1899

Drama:

The Author’s Evening at Home, pb. 1900

Mine Eyes Have Seen, pb. 1918

Nonfiction:

Give Us Each Day: The Diary of Alice Dunbar-Nelson, 1984

Edited Texts:

Masterpieces of Negro Eloquence: The Best Speeches Delivered by the Negro from the Days of Slavery to the Present Time, 1914

The Dunbar Reader and Entertainer: Containing the Best Prose and Poetic Selections by and About the Negro Race, 1920

Miscellaneous:

Violets, and Other Tales, 1895

An Alice Dunbar-Nelson Reader, 1979

Biography

Alice Dunbar-Nelson was significant in the African American world of her time for many reasons: She was a teacher, club woman, political activist, feminist, poet, short-story writer, and essayist. She was also briefly married to Paul Laurence Dunbar, an internationally known African American poet.{$I[AN]9810001888}{$I[A]Dunbar-Nelson, Alice[Dunbar Nelson, Alice]}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Dunbar-Nelson, Alice[Dunbar Nelson, Alice]}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Dunbar-Nelson, Alice[Dunbar Nelson, Alice]}{$I[geo]AFRICAN AMERICAN/AFRICAN DESCENT;Dunbar-Nelson, Alice[Dunbar Nelson, Alice]}{$I[tim]1875;Dunbar-Nelson, Alice[Dunbar Nelson, Alice]}

Alice Dunbar-Nelson was born Alice Ruth Moore in New Orleans, Louisiana, July 19, 1875. Educated at Straight University (now Dillard University) in New Orleans, she graduated in 1892. She stayed in New Orleans to teach until she accepted a teaching position in Brooklyn, New York. At the age of twenty, while still living in New Orleans, Dunbar-Nelson published Violets, and Other Tales under her birth name. The work consists of poems, stories, sketches, and essays.

In 1899 Dunbar-Nelson published her second book, The Goodness of St. Rocque, and Other Stories. The volume, the first collection of short stories published by an African American woman, includes no African American characters. The stories are filled with the type of “local color” descriptions that were popular at the time and are peopled with Cajuns and Creoles of mixed ancestry.

A photograph accompanying one of her sketches published in the Monthly Review attracted the attention of acclaimed poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. They began a correspondence that ended with their marriage in New York on March 6, 1898, over her family’s objections. In January, 1902, however, the couple separated.

After her separation from Dunbar, Dunbar-Nelson moved to Delaware, where she continued teaching until 1920. In Delaware she compiled and edited Masterpieces of Negro Eloquence: The Best Speeches Delivered by the Negro from the Days of Slavery to the Present Time. Published to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, the book consisted of many important speeches delivered by prominent African Americans, including some of her own. While still teaching in Delaware, Dunbar-Nelson edited The Dunbar Reader and Entertainer: Containing the Best Prose and Poetic Selections by and About the Negro Race, a book for children. By now she had been briefly married a second time to Arthur Callis, a high school teacher, and then married for a third time, to Robert J. Nelson of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. From 1920 to 1922, she and Nelson published the Wilmington Advocate. During the same period, Dunbar-Nelson was associate editor of the A.M.E. (African Methodist Episcopal) Church Review. After dismissal from her teaching position, she was a parole and probation officer from 1924 to 1928. As a part of her duties, she helped establish the Industrial School for Colored Girls, where she taught multigrade classes.

Dunbar-Nelson was also active in political circles. She was the first African American woman appointed to the Delaware Republican State Committee. A more controversial part of her political activities was serving as a member of a delegation of distinguished African Americans who visited the White House to voice the racial concerns of blacks to President Warren G. Harding. She also chaired the Anti-Lynching Crusade in Delaware.

As a journalist, she contributed to the Crisis, Opportunity, The Messenger, and Colliers. From February, 1926, to September, 1926, she wrote a regular column, “As in a Looking Glass,” for the Washington Eagle. For the Pittsburgh Courier, she contributed two regular columns, “Une Femme Dit” and “So It Seems–to Alice Dunbar-Nelson.” She published a scholarly article, “People of Color in Louisiana,” in the Journal of Negro History (1916-1917). Publication in an academic journal led to a demand for her as a lecturer.

Active in many women’s organizations, she was a suffragist and an early feminist. The short story “The Woman,” in Violets, and Other Stories, is an example of early black feminist writing. In the work, she voices her views on women working outside the home. For Dunbar-Nelson, working was preferable to entrapment in an oppressive marriage.

Dunbar-Nelson, like her first husband, Paul, is probably best known for her poetry, although it has received little critical notice. Her poems were included in James Weldon Johnson’s The Book of Negro Poetry (1913) and Robert Kerlin’s Negro Poets and Their Poems (1935). Her poetry also appeared in many popular magazines of the day, including Lippincott’s, Crisis, Women’s Era, and The Colored American. Dunbar-Nelson died of a heart ailment on September 18, 1935, in Philadelphia. At her death she left two unpublished manuscripts, “This Lofty Oak” and “Confessions of a Lazy Woman.”

BibliographyAlexander, Eleanor. Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow: The Tragic Courtship of Paul Laurence Dunbar and Alice Ruth Moore. New York: New York University Press, 2001. Using diary entries, letters, and autobiographies, examines Dunbar and Moore’s tempestuous relationship.Hull, Gloria T. Color, Sex, and Poetry: Three Women Writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Bloomington: University of Illinois Press, 1987. Gives one of the most comprehensive analyses of Dunbar-Nelson’s work. Hull theorizes that the emphasis on her poetry caused neglect of her other literary efforts.Hull, Gloria T. “Researching Alice Dunbar-Nelson: A Personal and Literary Perspective.” In All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, but Some of Us Are Brave, edited by Hull, Patricia Bell Scott, and Barbara Smith. Old Westbury, N.Y.: Feminist Press, 1982. Explores not only Dunbar-Nelson’s life and work but also her sexual orientation. Hull ponders the appropriateness of including personal information about Dunbar-Nelson in her published research.Whitlow, Roger. “Alice Dunbar-Nelson: New Orleans Writer.” In Regionalism and the Female Imagination: A Collection of Essays, edited by Emily Toth. New York: Human Sciences Press, 1985. Claims Dunbar-Nelson’s significance lies in her exploration of and writing about the New Orleans area and the ethnic groups living there.
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