After graduating high school Ms Dunbar-Nelson attended Straight University in New Orleans (now known as Dunbar University) which was founded by the American Missionary Association for African American scholars. She graduated in 1892 and went on to become a teacher in the public school system, editing the women’s page of a New Orleans paper in her spare time.
In 1895 her first collection of poems “Violets and Other Tales” was published in The Monthly Review and around the same time she moved to New York to co-found and teach at the White Rose Mission in Brooklyn. She began a correspondence with Paul Laurence Dunbar, a fellow poet and journalist, and when he proposed in 1898 they married in New York, and she moved to Washington DC to be with him. After four years they parted. Ms Dunbar-Nelson was attracted to and had relationships with women during the marriage and the relationship was volatile due to Mr Dunbar’s drinking. At one point Ms Dunbar-Nelson almost died as a result of his violent attacks. Mr Dunbar died in 1906 leaving Ms Dunbar-Nelson a widow.
Ms Dunbar-Nelson moved to Wilmington, Delaware, where she lived for more than a decade. She worked at Howard High School as a teacher and administrator, and also ran summer classes at the State College for Colored Students and Hampton Institute whilst continuing her writing. Throughout this time she had relationships with men and women including Henry A. Callis whom she met whilst working at the Institute and who worked as a physician. They wed 1910 but this marriage ended in divorce after only one year.
In 1913 Ms Dunbar-Nelson began writing for AME Review, an influential political publication put out by the African Methodist Episcopalian Church. In 1916 she met and married the poet and political activist Robert J. Nelson, and she herself became more politically active. Her reputation as a fighter for African American emancipation, for the rights of women and against the revolting practice of lynching grew, and she was dedicated to the advancement of educational opportunities for non-White Americans.
From 1920, Ms Dunbar-Nelson co-edited the Wilmington Advocate, a progressive black newspaper. She also published The Dunbar Speaker and Entertainer, which was a literary anthology for a black audience. At this point however, she found a lot of her writing was rejected because of the overt themes of oppression and racism. She found few mainstream publications would publish her writing deeming it unmarketable. Ms Dunbar-Nelson was able to publish her writing, however,
when the themes of racism and oppression were more subtle and as her writing developed. Even as she was addressing the issues, the systemic discrimination proved to be a block to her.
Ms Dunbar-Nelson’s activism became more pronounced after 1920 and into the 1930s. She continued to author stories and poems but also began to write articles and journalism on national social issues and political topics. In 1915, she was field organizer for the Middle Atlantic States for the woman’s suffrage movement. In 1918, she was field representative for the Woman’s Committee of the Council of Defense.
From 1920 onwards, Ms Dunbar-Nelson dedicated herself to a career in journalism and public speaking. She had highly successful syndicated columns in various periodical, and published articles, essays and reviews in newspapers, magazines, and academic journals. She was a popular speaker and had an active schedule of lectures through these years. This period of flourishing African American literature became known as the Harlem Renaissance. However, as an African American woman she met with hostility also. She met with problems both in being paid and in being refused recognition for her work.
In 1924 Ms Dunbar-Nelson campaigned for the passage of the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill but the Southern Democratic block in Congress defeated it. From 1928 to 1931 she served as executive secretary of the American Friends Inter-Racial Peace Committee. Throughout this time she continued to write and lecture, producing poems, stories, novels and plays.
In 1932 Ms Dunbar-Nelson moved to Philadelphia when her husband joined the Pennsylvania Athletic Commission. Ms Dunbar-Nelson’s health was in decline during the final decade of her life and she died on 19th September 1935.
Ms Dunbar-Nelson’s diary was published in 1984 and covered her life during 1921 and the period from 1926 to 1931. This document is cited by many as providing vital insight into the complex lives of African American Women so often then and still silenced by mainstream society in its inherent racism.
Violets & Other Tales (1895)
The Goodness of St Rocque & Other Stories (1899)
Give Us Each Day: The Diary of Alice Dunbar-Nelson. ed. Gloria T. Hull, New York: Norton, 1984.
Blog by Tina Price-Johnson