Writer Gloria T. Hull argues that Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s style of writing consistently shows readers her “desire to pull together multiple strands of her complex personality and poetics.” Throughout her career as a poet, journalist, activist and esteemed member of the Harlem Renaissance, Dunbar-Nelson used her talents as a writer to explore African-American womanhood, life as a multiracial person as well as the plight of African-Americans throughout the United States during the Progressive Era.
Early Life and Education
Dunbar-Nelson was born in New Orleans on July 19, 1875 as Alice Ruth Moore. Her mother, Patricia Wright, worked as a seamstress and her father, Joseph Moore worked as a merchant marine. The family was part of the multiracial Creole society in New Orleans. In 1892, Nelson graduated from Straight University, which today is known as Dillard University , and began her teaching career in New Orleans.
A Burgeoning Writer
When Dunbar-Nelson was barely twenty years of age, she published her first collection of poems and short stories Violets and Other Tales. Several pieces in the collection, including A Carnival Jangle and Little Miss Sophie show Dunbar-Nelson's ability to capture the language and culture of New Orleans in 1895.
In 1897, Dunbar-Nelson published a poem in the Monthly Review. Soon after, she began a long distance relationship with poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. The following year, the couple married in New York City. Soon after, Dunbar-Nelson settled in Washington D.C. with her husband.
In 1899, Dunbar-Nelson published The Goodness of St. Rocque and Other Stories. The collection included several revisions of previously published stories such as Titee and Little Miss Sophie.
In 1902, Dunbar-Nelson separated from her husband, Paul Laurence. She moved to Wilmington, De where she taught at Howard High School, the State College for Colored Students and Howard University. Dunbar-Nelson continued to write and publish, using the last name Dunbar.
In 1910, Dunbar-Nelson married physician and Howard University professor, Arthur Callis but the couple divorced soon after. During this time, Dunbar-Nelson served as co-editor and writer for the AME Review and published Masterpieces of Negro Eloquence.
While living in Wilmington, Dunbar-Nelson became involved in social activism. First, she worked as a grass roots organizer for the women's suffrage movement and also for the Woman's Committee of the Council of Defense.
In 1924, Dunbar-Nelson became involved in the Anti-Lynching Campaign, protesting for the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill.
Journalist and Member of the Harlem Renaissance
In 1916, she married her third husband, Robert J. Nelson.
During this time period, Dunbar-Nelson began to work as a journlalist, publishing articles such as "People of Color in Louisiana" in Journal of Negro History. In 1920, she edited and published The Dunbar Speaker and Entertainer, a news magazine. Dunbar-Nelson also coedited the African-American newspaper Willmington Advocate with her husband. Dunbar-Nelson also published the following articles: "The Colored United States" in Messenger as well as several column in publications such as Pittsburgh Courier and Washington Eagle. However, publishing work as a journalist was not always easy for Dunbar-Nelson and she wrote in her dairy, "Damn bad luck I have with my pen. Some fate has decreed I shall never make money by it."
In addition to working as a journalist, Dunbar-Nelson was published in many literary journals and anthologies of the Harlem Renaissance such as the NAACP's Crisis and Opportunity of the National Urban League. In 1927, poet Countee Cullen added three of her poems, "I Sit and I Sew," "Snow in October," and "Sonnet," in the collection Caroling Dusk.
Dunbar-Nelson died on September 18, 1935 in Philadelphia .