Alice Ruth Moore Dunbar-Nelson (1875-1935)

Alice Ruth Moore Dunbar-Nelson
Courtesy Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library

Alice Ruth Moore, educator, author and social activist, was born on July 19, 1875 in New Orleans, Louisiana to Patricia (Wright) Moore and Monroe Moore.  She attended public school in New Orleans and enrolled in the teacher training program at Straight University in that city in 1890. Two years later she graduated and began teaching in New Orleans.

Moore developed her literary skills while teaching and soon became a prolific writer.  Her first book, Violets and Other Tales, a collection of short stories, was published in 1895. Later that year she published The Goodness of St. Rocque, and Other Short Stories.  Through her career Alice Moore wrote four novels, two volumes of oratory, dramas, newspaper columns, two collections of essays, poems, short stories and reviews, many of which drew on her extensive knowledge of Creole culture.  In all of these collections, Alice Moore proved to be a perceptive critic of American society.

Alice Moore was married three times.  Her first marriage was to Paul Laurence Dunbar, the poet.  Dunbar noticed her picture and one of her poems in the Boston Monthly Review in 1895, and was instantly infatuated.  They began a two year correspondence and finally met in February 1897. They were married on March 6, 1898 in New York City, New York and moved to Washington, D.C.  The marriage initiated a tumultuous relationship and they separated in 1902.  As husband and wife they shared literary pursuits and celebrity status in Washington, but their life together was marred by Paul’s physically abusive treatment of Alice.  In one incident she was sent to a Washington, D.C. hospital where she nearly died after his attack.

After the separation Alice Moore Dunbar moved to Wilmington, Delaware.  She worked at Howard High School in an assortment of positions, and was involved in several intimate relationships with both men and women.  She secretly married fellow teacher Henry A. Callis in 1910, but divorced him shortly after.  It was not until her third marriage in 1916 to Robert J. Nelson, a journalist and political activist, that she was involved in a stable relationship.

Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson had worked with social and cultural organizations since her youth in New Orleans.  Her marriage to Nelson, however, seemed to encourage greater involvement in the public arena.  She became active in Delaware and regional politics as well as in the civil rights and women’s suffrage movement.  During World War I, for example, Dunbar-Nelson served as a field representative of the Woman’s Committee of the Council of National Defense. Later she served on the State Republican Committee of Delaware.  From 1929 to 1931 she was executive secretary of the American Friends Inter-Racial Peace Committee.

Dunbar-Nelson was co-editor with her husband of the Wilmington Advocate, the local African American newspaper.  She wrote initially for the Advocate and then became a successful syndicated columnist.  Dunbar-Nelson’s career peaked in the 1920s and early 1930s when she wrote reviews and essays for newspapers, magazines and academic journals.  She also continued to write stories, poems, plays and novels.  Her work reached a national audience which made her a popular public speaker.

In 1932 Alice Dunbar-Nelson moved to Philadelphia when her husband became a member of the Pennsylvania Athletic Commission.  Soon afterwards her health began to deteriorate.  In September 1935 she was admitted to a Philadelphia hospital for a heart ailment.  She died there on September 18, 1935 at the age of sixty.