Who was Alice Dunbar-Nelson?

By | July 19, 2022

While sitting in a classroom at Dillard University of New Orleans in the 1990’s, I met Alice Dunbar-Nelson (1875-1935). She, as we would say back then, “rocked my world.” Nearly one hundred years removed from the characters in her first collection, Violets and Other Tales, Dunbar-Nelson’s New Orleans was not a place that I knew. But I would slowly come to recognize her beloved, complicated city as I drove and walked around with a more focused purpose. I searched for cobblestone streets and other remnants of the late nineteenth century city that she loved. I, a girl who had been raised in the suburbs, loved New Orleans, but her love was special. She was willing to both critique its gender and social politics as she also celebrated the beauty of the architecture and artistic culture. Years later, I would introduce her to my own students, but teaching could not address my unanswered questions. I wanted, no needed, to know what happened to her after she married Paul Laurence Dunbar, the famous writer. Love, Activism, and the Respectable Life of Alice Dunbar-Nelson answers that question.

The literary biography delves deeply into the loves of her life—her lovers (men and women), her writing, her political activism. First, her complex love life was never boring. Born, Alice Moore in New Orleans in 1875, she probably did not have a sustained relationship with her father. Keeping his identity, a secret was a practice that she and her women-centered family continued from one generation to the next. Secrecy equated to maintaining a respectable identity. As a result, she married men and loved them, even though she also had an attraction to women. In her personal life, she explored these attractions, at least during her third marriage and in between her first and second marriage. And, despite her abusive relationship with Dunbar, she never gave up on finding a man who would made her feel like a respected partner.

Dunbar-Nelson loved her race or the “mother race” as she referred to her Black identity in an essay. She worked tirelessly to fight for the political rights of Black people in general, but most certainly Black women as a member of the Black Club Women’s Movement. She served with well-known activist Mary Church Terrell as Recording Secretary of the National Association of Colored Women. These women strove to educate children, strengthen families, and provide social services to support Black communities in the face of racial discrimination. As a member of the Phillis Wheatley Club, which she co-founded in New Orleans, she helped to establish a clinic, which eventually became Flint-Goodridge Hospital where Black residents received care from Black healthcare professionals. She would continue this work when she moved to Wilmington, DE and joined with the federated colored women’s clubs.

Much of her life was dedicated to educating Black youth. Many of her Black educated class saw education as a pathway to achieving some semblance of equality for Black people. Her career as an English teacher began in New Orleans and ended in Wilmington, DE, where she lived after leaving Dunbar in 1902. While there, she worked alongside Edwina Kruse, the long-time principal of Howard School (and her lover), and other Black teachers, to educate students who attended the segregated school. Their goal was to prepare students to attend college and technical schools. The school was also a place that taught students’ morals that the teachers felt would make them respectable members of society. The community was highly invested in the school as it also established itself as a center of the performative arts for the city. Dunbar-Nelson prepared students to present an annual artistic show, an event that she attended even after she was no longer teaching there.

An activist, an educator—Dunbar-Nelson certainly wore many hats. But one that she may be best known for is her writing. Like so many writers, she loved it. But she also hated it. Writing brought her a sense of purpose, but she also tangled with the disappointments of rejections and the challenges of trying to write in different genres. It was a way of offering political criticism of a society that undervalued women and Black folks, but it was also a way to celebrate the accomplishments of Black people. From her poetry, to her fiction, to her columns and plays, we see the many faces and hear the diverse voices of a Black women from 1895 until her death in 1935.

I end with an excerpt from the introduction:

“God, don’t let me die before I do something useful,” wrote Alice Ruth Moore Dunbar-Nelson in one of her diary entries. Written when she was just forty years old, she appeared to have found herself at a crossroads. On one side, she saw herself as not having made much of a contribution to society, in effect, underestimating the tremendous amount of work she had done and the life she had led. On the other, she could not be satisfied with those accomplishments and steadily tried to do much more. And, she did. I bring you the complicated love story of a respectable activist.”

Tara T. Green is Professor of African American and African Diaspora Studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, USA where she teaches literature and Black women’s studies courses. She is the author of Reimagining the Middle Passage: Black Resistance in Literature, Television, and Song (2018), A Fatherless Child: Autobiographical Perspectives of African American Men (2009), and See Me Naked: Black Women Defining Pleasure during the Interwar Era (2022), and she is the editor of two books, including From the Plantation to the Prison: African American Confinement Literature (2008). She is from the New Orleans area.

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