(Re)discovering Alice Dunbar-Nelson 

The Rosen­bach Muse­um presents I Am an American!’

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5 minute read
Where history helps us imagine a better future: Alice Dunbar-Nelson in a 1915 photography by Addison Scurlock. (Courtesy of University of Delaware Library, Museums, and Press, Special Collections & Museums.)
Where history helps us imagine a better future: Alice Dunbar-Nelson in a 1915 photography by Addison Scurlock. (Courtesy of University of Delaware Library, Museums, and Press, Special Collections & Museums.)

Alice Dunbar-Nelson (1875-1935) would understand this moment. The Black author, educator, and activist is explored in I Am an American! The Authorship and Activism of Alice Dunbar-Nelson, a digital project of the Rosenbach Museum in collaboration with the University of Delaware Library, Museums, and Press. Available through 2021, it is the first in-depth examination of Dunbar-Nelson’s life and legacy.

Author and advocate

Dunbar-Nelson’s writing crossed genres and broached sensitive themes she knew viscerally. In fiction, literary criticism, journalism, and poetry, she described with unapologetic candor and defiant wit the whole of what she experienced: discrimination and violence, pride and patriotism. The varied nature of Dunbar-Nelson’s writing made it difficult to market and, given the author’s race and gender, easier for editors to reject and literary critics to ignore.

I Am an American! places Dunbar-Nelson at the heart of the1920s Harlem Renaissance. She was a syndicated columnist, regularly contributed to Black periodicals, and reviewed the literary output of contemporaries. As an editor and publisher, she championed Black writers in Masterpieces of Negro Eloquence: The Best Speeches Delivered by the Negro from the Days of Slavery to the Present Time (1914) and The Dunbar Speaker and Entertainer: Containing the Best Prose and Poetic Selections by and About the Negro Race (1920). With third husband Robert Nelson in the early 1920s, she published the Wilmington Advocate, a regional newspaper for Wilmington’s Black community.

“Dunbar-Nelson’s unique brand of essay writing, which combined criticism and social commentary, was humorously witty,” the exhibit states. “The articles, essays, and columns offer insight into the thought of the Black intellectual class which, by any measure, was far from monolithic.”

Private and public violence

Dunbar-Nelson’s first marriage, in 1898, to prominent poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar, took place, incredibly, after Dunbar had raped her. The act foreshadowed their turbulent relationship. In 1902, when an argument led to her hospitalization, Dunbar-Nelson left the marriage. She never divorced Dunbar, becoming his widow when he died four years later at 33, of tuberculosis. Irrespective of the couple’s personal strife, after Dunbar’s death Dunbar-Nelson became an unwavering advocate for his literary contributions.

Dunbar-Nelson also experienced police violence in 1901 at the US Capitol, where a massive crowd had gathered to honor assassinated President William McKinley. Caught in a stampede on the Capitol steps, a policeman grabbed and beat her with a baton. Bleeding profusely from the head, she was treated at a hospital and, though a complaint was filed with witness and physician statements, the Washington DC police declined to file charges against or to discipline the officer, who claimed Dunbar-Nelson had attacked him.

Documents from the incident are on view, and in Voices of Change, an eight-part exhibition podcast, co-curator Jesse R. Erickson says, “The letters … make a pretty strong case that this was an incident of unprovoked police violence.… It was because of racial discrimination of the time that both the superintendent and presiding commissioner [of police] were reluctant to pursue the case.” Erickson notes that both Dunbar-Nelson and Dunbar, who was with her, were likely recognized in the crowd and possibly targeted.

Lifelong educator

Born in New Orleans, Alice Ruth Moore earned a teaching degree and taught before moving north in 1895, as her first collection of short stories was published. She eventually settled in New York, where she helped found and would teach at the White Rose Mission for young Black women.

After leaving Dunbar, Dunbar-Nelson relocated to Wilmington, where she taught and led the English department at Howard High School, the only four-year program in Delaware that admitted Black students. Drawing on her study of British literature, Dunbar-Nelson based the curriculum in luminaries such as Shakespeare and Wordsworth, as well as preeminent Black authors.

Concerned with the craft of teaching, she wrote extensively on methodology, and conducted summer teacher training at the State College for Colored Students (now Delaware State University), and Virginia’s Hampton Institute.

“Not uncommon”

The exhibit illuminates Dunbar-Nelson’s romantic relationships with women, the most meaningful of which involved Howard principal Edwina Kruse, 27 years her senior. The exhibit indicates that lesbian relationships were “not uncommon for middle-class Black women in the early 20th century…even if they presented themselves as heterosexual women married to men.”

As educational colleagues, Dunbar-Nelson and Kruse in 1920 helped establish Wilmington’s Industrial School for Colored Girls. Together, they “created a community of Black excellence not just in the halls of Howard but in the community of Wilmington.”

Expanding and rediscovering

I Am an American! is a collaborative effort by The Rosenbach, which is affiliated with the Free Library of Philadelphia Foundation, to expand its reach. The museum partnered with the University of Delaware Library, Museums, and Press, which hold Dunbar-Nelson’s papers and archival materials, and a 27-member advisory committee of poets, historians, authors, civic activists, and museum professionals, to develop the exhibit, podcast, and a menu of virtual programming and activities to introduce modern audiences to Dunbar-Nelson’s story and significance. As the pandemic closed in and the exhibition became purely virtual, technical specialists played an increasingly integral role.

I Am an American! was curated by University of Delaware scholars Jesse R. Erickson and Monet Timmons. Erickson is assistant professor and coordinator of Special Collections and Digital Humanities, and Timmons, a doctoral student in English, specializes in recovering stories of Black women writers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The co-curators worked with Rosenbach and Free Library staff to write the exhibition script.

Museums as mirrors

Timmons says that “when many people think about libraries and museums they think they’re simply places of learning … but these spaces are more than that.” They can be places “where we rewrite and reinterpret history … to imagine better futures.”

Advisory group member Yolanda Wisher, a Rosenbach board member, recalled a telling conversation during planning with a woman who said she didn’t see anything that “looked like her” in the museum. “This exhibit is an opportunity,” Wisher said, “to challenge ourselves to critically imagine what it would take to get Black people, Indigenous folk, people of color, queer and trans folk through the doors and to feel welcome every time, to feel like they belong.”

Alice Dunbar-Nelson would understand.

Image description: A black-and-white portrait photo of Alice Dunbar-Nelson taken in 1915, when Dunbar-Nelson was about 40. Her wavy hair is parted and worn in a short, voluminous style with a ribbon at the back. She has a soft, expectant, slightly smiling expression.

What, When, Where

I Am an American! The Authorship and Activism of Alice Dunbar-Nelson. A digital exhibition from the Rosenbach Museum and the University of Delaware Library, Museums, and Press. Access it for free online throughout 2021. (215) 732-1600 or rosenbach.org.

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