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Alice Dunbar-Nelson

Kathryn S Gardiner | Published on 2/14/2022

Forgotten Foremothers

Profiles of lesser-known heroines in the fight for women’s rights
In the 1920s and 1930s, the Harlem neighborhood of Manhattan blossomed into a mecca of Black art, music, writing, and culture. Its streets and stages held the music of Josephine Baker and Louis Armstrong, the poetry of Langston Hughes, the writings of Zora Neale Hurston, and the performances of Paul Robeson. 

This blossoming came from seeds planted by Black writers, musicians, artists, and poets whose names have not become so widely known.

In New Orleans, on July 19, 1875, Alice Ruth Moore was born. Her mother, Patricia Wright, was an African American seamstress who had been born enslaved in Opelousas, Louisiana. Her father, Joseph Moore, was a white seaman. He left the family when Ruth was still very young, so Ruth’s mother raised her alone and made her daughter’s education a priority.

Young Alice excelled at school and went on to graduate from Straight University with a teaching degree in 1892. She also played the cello and the mandolin. She began teaching at Old Marigny Elementary School right after graduation and published her first collection of poetry in 1895 when she was just 20 years old. 

“If I had known/Two years ago the impotence of love/The vainness of a kiss, how barren a caress/Mayhap my soul to higher things have soarn,” wrote young Alice in Violets and Other Tales.

Public Domain

The following year, 1896, she moved to Boston where she taught for a year, before moving to Brooklyn. There, she formed friendships with fellow writers Victoria Earle Matthews and Maritcha Remond Lyons. The three founded the White Rose Mission in 1897, providing shelter and food for women of color arriving from the southern United States or the West Indies. These women were otherwise vulnerable to grifters and dishonest employers awaiting their arrival at the docks. (The White Rose Mission, known by several other names over the years, remained active until 1984 and was one of the inspirations for the YMCA.)

During this time, Alice also published articles in local newspapers, including a regular column in The Woman’s Era. Her words and photo caught the eye of Paul Laurence Dunbar, a writing prodigy who had been born to enslaved parents and gave his first public poetry recital at age 9. By the time he wrote to Alice to praise her, Paul was already acclaimed in poetry circles. He had even won the attention and encouragement of Hoosier poet James Whitcomb Riley. 

A long exchange of letters began with sharing literary opinions, but soon took on a more romantic tone. Paul considered her “ideal,” and stated that, “I am better and purer for having touched hands with you over all these miles.” Paul asserts that thoughts of Alice keep him from “yielding to temptations,” placing her in the position of being partially responsible for his actions. Alice declines this power, and Paul later tries to make her jealous by writing of interactions with other women. 

Romance was a complex and layered thing for a woman in Alice’s social position. Her poetry reveals a yearning for love and partnership, but her behavior was often cold towards men. “To understand Alice necessitates understanding the world that she knew as she matured into womanhood,” writes Tara T. Green in The Langston Hughes Review. “For black women, the pressures of being accepted in a country that saw them as jezebels—a focus on the body as a sexual vessel—and the mammy—a focus on the body as breeder and nurturer—meant that black women had something to prove. ... These women [others like Alice who worked with organizations similar to the White Rose Mission] were not opposed to the Victorian virtues of purity and piety, but they were opposed to the implications that the virtues were only applicable to white women. They felt that there was pressure to prove that they, too, were ladies.”

Additionally, there was a perception that lingers even to this day that, no matter a woman’s professional or personal accomplishments, she is incomplete if she’s unmarried.  All these competing tensions and complexities are palpable in Alice’s writings as an author, and a young woman corresponding with a man who desires her attention. In The Woman, Alice writes: 

Well, she may preside over conventions, brandish her umbrella at board meetings, tramp the streets soliciting subscriptions, wield the blue pencil in an editorial sanctum, hammer a type-writer, smear her nose with ink from a galley full of pied type, lead infant ideas through the torturous mazes of c-a-t and r-a-t, plead at the bar, or wield the scalpel in a dissecting room, yet when the right moment comes, she will sink gracefully into his manly embrace, throw her arms as lovingly around his neck, and cuddle as warmly and sweetly to his bosom as her little sister who has done nothing else but think, dream, and practice for that hour.

In 1898, Alice moved to Washington, DC to be closer to Paul and the two secretly eloped later that year. It was not a peaceful marriage. “Their correspondence reveals that he raped Alice before their marriage,” writes Tara T. Green. “He blamed the violation on alcohol, but because he’d shared this with others, Alice felt obligated to marry him... In the nineteenth century, women who had been sexually active with one man prior to marriage would have stood little chance of being accepted by another.” Alice also wanted to forgive him and believe this action was a mistake. 

Violence continued to mark their short marriage, however. Paul’s health declined with a bout of tuberculosis, and his alcoholism only worsened. On Feb. 1, 1902, African American newspaper editor T. Thomas Fortune dropped a bit of social news in a letter he wrote to Booker T. Washington: “Saturday night, Dunbar went home and tried to kill his wife.” Following this horrific night, Alice left Paul, but the couple never officially divorced. For the years following, Paul wrote love letters, begging for forgiveness and reconciliation. Alice answered just once, in a letter containing exactly one word: “No!” Paul died in 1906 of tuberculosis. 

“It is ironic that a woman of such talent and energy should be remembered for what were probably the worst four years of her life,” notes Betty Hart in A Cry in the Wilderness: The Diary of Alice Dunbar-Nelson. Indeed, throughout this nightmare, Alice continued to write and to publish, including The Goodness of St. Rocque and Other Stories in 1899. Her works show a preoccupation with a woman’s voice—in society, in abusive relationships, in a marriage—particularly from a Black woman’s point of view. Betty Hart says, “In order to achieve any recognition or, for that matter, validation as a black female writer, Alice Dunbar-Nelson had to rely exclusively on her own resources and finagling.”

Alice relocated to Wilmington, Delaware where she began teaching at Howard High School and summer sessions for the State College for Colored Students and Hampton Institute. She continued her own studies by enrolling at Cornell University in 1907. In 1910, she married Howard University professor and physician Henry A. Callis, but the couple divorced soon after. 

During these years, and likely even in the years before her marriage to Paul, Alice enjoyed romantic relationships with women. In 1928, she wrote in her diary of an evening spent with other married women, “We want to make whoopee... Life is glorious. Good homemade white grape wine. We really make whoopee... Such a glorious moonlight night.” 

“All of these women were prominent and professional, and most had husbands and/or children,” observes Gloria T. Hull, who compiled Alice’s diaries into a book titled Give Us Each Day. “Somehow, they contrived to be themselves and carry on these relationships in what must surely must have been an extremely repressive context—with even more layers of oppression piled on by the stringencies of their roles as Black women.” Alice had a profound relationship with journalist Fay Jackson Robinson, calling a day they shared together her “One Perfect Day.”

Living in Wilmington, Alice became more active in politics and activism. When war broke out in 1914, her works turned to rallying cries for African American men to join the military. In Not Only War Is Hell: World War I and African American Lynching Narratives, David A. Davis writes, “She may, in fact, have been the most prominent African American female proponent of America’s involvement in the war.” In her play, Mine Eyes Have Seen, her characters give voice to the arguments of the day. She believed, as did many at the time, that military service would be the end of racial violence in the United States. If Black men demonstrated their patriotism, the theory went, then surely the United States would embrace them as equals. Her poem I Sit and Sew implies that, if she could, she would have enlisted herself. 

I sit and sew—my heart aches with desire—
That pageant terrible, that fiercely pouring fire
On wasted fields, and writhing grotesque things
Once men. My soul in pity flings
Appealing cries, yearning only to go
There in that holocaust of hell, those fields of woe—
But—I must sit and sew.

She co-founded the Equal Suffrage Study Club in 1914 and campaigned for the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill in 1924. She worked closely with the NAACP throughout, while also writing and editing for the A.M.E. Review, an influential publication in the local Black community.

On April 20, 1916, Alice married for a third and final time to Robert J. Nelson, a journalist and widowed father of two. Both Alice and Robert (whom Alice called Bob O or Bobbo) were politically active and focused on working toward racial equality. This union seems to have been a good one for Alice. “They cooperated when that was in order and pursued their separate activities when that was necessary,” writes Betty Hart. “Together, they edited and published a progressive Black newspaper, The Wilmington Advocate, from 1920 to 1922.”

In the early 1920s, Alice faced numerous setbacks. First, she lost her teaching job at Howard High School. The new principal, who had been in his job only nine days, fired Alice for attending a Social Justice Day in Marion, Ohio, “political activity” that he deemed incompatible with her position. Some members of the school board opposed her dismissal, but Alice chose not to fight it. Howard High School no longer felt like a suitable place for her to teach.

The following year, she mourned the death of a beloved niece, Leila Ruth (or Leila Jr.), daughter of her older sister Leila. Alice had doted on the girl and paid for her music lessons, but a childhood bout of typhoid fever prevented Leila Ruth from ever being a strong, hale adult. Leila Ruth taught for a few years, just like her aunt, then died on Jan. 17, 1921. Around this time, The Wilmington Advocate began struggling financially, cutting off another source of income and influence. In a single year, Alice saw her social standing as an educator, speaker, and columnist vanish. In her diary, she calls 1921 “one of the unhappiest years I ever spent.”

The following years were full of unsatisfying, brief periods of employment at different schools or organizations. Alice also chafed against the domestic work still expected of her as a wife. On May 25, 1929, after attending the National Negro Music Festival, “an event she planned, arranged, carried out, and worked on day and night before its occurrence,” Betty Hart notes, Alice wrote in her journal: “Nearly cracked when I got home a wreck, and Bobbo asked me if there was anything to eat in the ice-box. It was too cruel.”

In 1928, she secured a position as the Executive Secretary of the American Friends Inter-Racial Peace Committee. In early 1930, “So It Seems—to Alice Dunbar-Nelson,” a weekly column, began running in the Pittsburgh Courier. On Sept. 18, 1935, 60-year-old Alice died of heart failure at the University of Pennsylvania Hospital. “She was brought back to Delaware for cremation when no establishment in Philadelphia would perform that service for a Black person,” Gloria T. Hull writes. Her last wish, “eventually executed by her husband at the Delaware River, was to have her ashes strewn to ‘the four winds, either over land or sea.’”

That Alice’s writing endures to this day is a credit not only to her talent, but her business savvy and efforts. She made little money off these pursuits in a male- and white-dominated field. “Her inclusion in contemporary publications was mainly the result of her own carefully cultivated social and business contacts,” writes Betty Hart. “She also had close associations with the popular black writers and critics of the era and kept herself in the public eye by participating in many cultural and organizational conferences. She would not hesitate to travel anywhere in the United States for seemingly minor speaking engagements.”

Alice’s daily journal was published in 1984, illuminating ignored, erased, and shadowed places of United States history. In her review of the diary compiled by Gloria T. Hull, Patsy B. Perry writes, “In fact, Give Us Each Day describes, from an insider’s vantage point, a large network of people, places, organizations, and activities important to the Harlem Renaissance era, one of the richest periods in the literary and cultural history of black Americans.”

Sources: Harlem Renaissance Harlem Renaissance

Wikipedia: White Rose MissionPaul Laurence DunbarHarlem RenaissanceAlice Dunbar-Nelson

Literary Ladies Guide: A Selection of Poems by Alice Dunbar-Nelson

The Langston Hughes Review: Not Just Paul’s Wife: Alice Dunbar’s Literature and Activism by Tara T. Green

Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow: The Tragic Courtship and Marriage of Paul Laurence Dunbar and Alice Ruth Moore by Eleanor Alexander

The Goodness of St. Rocque and Other Stories by Alice Dunbar

A Cry in the Wilderness: The Diary of Alice Dunbar-Nelson by Betty Hart

Give Us Each Day: The Diary of Alice Dunbar-Nelson, editing and notes by Gloria T. Hull

Not Only War Is Hell: World War I and African American Lynching Narratives by David A. Davis

North Carolina Central University: Give Us Each Day book review by Patsy B. Perry Alice Dunbar-Nelson