Alice Dunbar Nelson: A Life Lived Outside the Box
By Karen Robertson
Content warning: This post includes a brief mention of domestic violence and sexual assault.
At the Ohio History Connection, you will find items related to Paul Laurence Dunbar, a name you are likely familiar with. Dunbar was a famous and influential writer in the early twentieth century, and he started and ended his life in Dayton, Ohio. His home there is now a part of our site network.
But if you look closely enough in our collections you will also find traces of a remarkable woman who, although she never lived in Ohio, is permanently attached to our history through her relationship with Paul Laurence Dunbar. Alice Dunbar Nelson, Paul Laurence Dunbar’s wife, was herself an accomplished writer, activist, and teacher.
Alice Moore was born in New Orleans in 1875. Her father was a Creole seaman and her mother a formerly enslaved seamstress. Alice’s father was absent from her life, but her mother and her aunt worked hard to ensure that she and her sister were afforded the education they desired. Alice graduated from Straight (now Dillard) University by the age of 17, and was soon working as a teacher herself. She published her first book in 1895, at the age of 20, the same year that she first met Paul Laurence Dunbar- through the postal service.
In April 1895, Dunbar read a poem that Alice had published, accompanied by her photograph, and decided to write to her in New Orleans. For two years, the couple courted each other through correspondence. Their writings were thoroughly romantic, Paul calling Alice “the sudden realization of an ideal!”
The Dunbars were married in 1898. Unfortunately, Paul was increasingly violent towards Alice, leading to their separation in 1902. Before their marriage, Dunbar raped Alice, leaving her with significant injuries. During their marriage, he continued to be violent, pushing Alice to leave after a particularly rough encounter. After she left, Dunbar attempted to win Alice back by sending letters filled with the flowery language that had first won her heart. In reply, she sent one telegram that simply read “No.”
Alice learned of Paul’s death in 1906 when reading the daily news. Although their marriage ended in strife, Alice did keep the Dunbar name throughout her life and continued to speak about Paul and help to preserve his legacy.
Although she was attached to his name for most of her life, Paul Laurence Dunbar was actually a short moment in the story of Alice Dunbar Nelson. She was a teacher- covering the earliest years of elementary school through the college level. She was also an activist- working for women’s suffrage, African American civil rights, and anti-lynching legislation. In fact, in 1920, she was fired from her teaching job for her activism. Perhaps most notably, Alice was a writer, with many works that, had she been a man, may be more prominently featured on the shelves in our libraries today.
Alice Dunbar Nelson spent much of her life living outside of society’s boxes. She was biracial, bisexual, and a writer who worked in almost every medium. To understand her life, it is perhaps best to examine the binary expectations of race, sexuality, and career that she broke throughout her life.
Alice Dunbar Nelson was biracial, and her Creole heritage meant she had light skin and auburn hair. She was often able to pass, but was clear about her desire not to blend into white society. She faced derision for her appearance and race from both white and Black people in her life.
Alice often used her writing to explore the experience of living in this in-between space. In particular, her short story, “The Stones of the Village,“ tells the story of a Creole man who, after a complicated childhood, chooses to pass as white. He spends his childhood alone, unwanted as a playmate by white children, and encouraged by his grandmother not to play with Black children. After deciding to live as white, the main character, Victor, is plagued with guilt and confusion until, as Dunbar Nelson writes, “The secret died with him….”
Unlike Victor, Alice Dunbar Nelson was always clear about her identity as a Black woman. She worked throughout her life to support her community- advocating for the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill, helping to establish the White Rose Mission in New York City, and using her skills as a writer to speak out against discrimination and offer a platform for Black voices.
As her career progressed, Alice turned from her frequent work in poetry and prose to nonfiction and journalistic styles. This allowed her to speak more clearly about her activism in pieces such as “Negro Women in War Work,” and “Politics in Delaware.” Alice also worked to provide a platform for others. For example, she coedited the Wilmington Advocate, an important Black publication, with her husband Robert.
In 1920, Alice edited a volume titled The Dunbar Speaker and Entertainer, including works by and about the Black community (including works by Paul Laurence Dunbar himself). In this volume, Alice did include a few white voices, such as Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Walt Whitman. However, in her table of contents, she marked these names and wrote, “The names marked with an asterisk are the names of members of the Caucasian Race.”
Determining a historic figure’s sexuality should not be taken lightly, or a historian risks removing the person’s agency in their own story. Everyone should have the agency to choose the labels they do or do not use. However in many cases, historic figures that would today fall into the LGBTQ+ community lived in societies that actively removed their agency to choose these labels honestly in their own time.
As is documented in her diary, Alice Dunbar Nelson experienced romantic and intimate relationships with both men and women during her lifetime. So what we can say is that Alice Dunbar Nelson’s experiences might today be defined under the umbrella of bisexuality.
“Love and beautiful love has been mine from many men, but the great passion of four or five transcended that of other women — and what more can any woman want?” –Alice Dunbar Nelson in her diary, 1931
Alice wrote freely about her relationships with women in her diary, and wrote poems dedicated to those women that caught her eye. Alice burned most of these poems before her death in 1935. Some, unpublished, do survive today, including “You! Inez!” (1921).
After her marriage with Paul Laurence Dunbar ended, Alice moved to Delaware and began dating Edwina Kruse, the principal at the school where she worked. The two appear to have dated for a few years. Kruse, like Dunbar before her, wrote elegant words for Alice, saying in a letter, “I want you to know dear, every thought of my life is for you, every throb of my heart is yours and yours alone.”
Not long after her relationship with Kruse ended, Dunbar settled into her third and final marriage, to Robert Nelson, a journalist and similarly activist-minded man. But Alice’s duality of experience continued. Interestingly, she once wrote about a fight the couple had by saying, “Bobbo and I had a fearsome quarrel yesterday morning, about the car, of course, and I burst out that I am tired of being the man.” The couple seemed to live outside the strict binary gender roles they had been assigned, but occasionally Alice was annoyed by it.
Alice also continued relationships with women after her marriage to Nelson, in particular with activist Fay Jackson Robinson and artist Helen Ricks London. Initially, Alice kept these experiences a secret from her husband. But by the end of their marriage she carried on with his (supposedly reluctant) blessing, navigating what today might be termed an open relationship.
In the public eye, Alice Dunbar Nelson lived as a straight woman, but privately she stepped into a different identity. Unfortunately Alice’s secrecy means this experience is not often reflected upon in her writing. But, as her diaries help prove, it was certainly not an unusual experience for women in her social circle. Historian Lillian Faderman points to an “active black bisexual network among prominent ‘club women….’”
Alice Dunbar Nelson’s many experiences outside the binary are perhaps reflected in her willingness to vary the medium in which she worked as a writer. Alice wrote poetry, prose, essays, criticisms, and even a play. As an activist, Alice expressed her message through stories like “The Stones of the Village,” or essays like “Negro Women in War Work.” But she also completed works like “People of Color in Louisiana,” which is essentially the work of a historian.
Alice also wrote frequently and with elegance in her diary, sometimes even penning poems in its pages. She kept the details of her life, but often described these details with prose that feels polished and purposeful. For instance, to explain her sadness one day, Alice wrote, “Blue. My God! I’m so blue that if I were a dog, I’d sit on my haunches and howl and howl and howl …”
After a long life of work, Alice Dunbar Nelson passed away in 1935, suffering from heart failure. However it is through Alice’s diary, her writing never meant for a public face, that we continue to know the genius that was Alice Dunbar Nelson.
Interested in learning more? Alice Dunbar Nelson’s diary is today published under the name Give Us Each Day. Many of her works are available online- where possible they have been linked throughout this blog post. The Rosenbach in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, has also recently created a digital exhibition about Alice Dunbar Nelson with hours worth of accompanying content for you to explore. Check it out here. Below are some of the resources that were used to write this blog post: