Alice Ruth Moore Dunbar-Nelson was born on July 19, 1875, in New Orleans. Her mother was Patricia Wright, a seamstress, and her father, Joseph Moore, was a merchant marine. Nelson earned a teaching degree at Straight University (now, Dillard University) in 1892 at age seventeen. She then taught in the local public school system as an elementary school teacher until 1931.
Nelson published a collection of short stories, poems, and essays in a volume entitled Violets and Other Tales (Monthly Review, 1895), which was followed by The Goodness of St. Rocque and Other Stories (Dodd, Mead & Company 1899), a collection about Creole life and culture in New Orleans. Nelson married Paul Laurence Dunbar in New York in 1898 and moved to Washington, D.C. The couple divorced in 1902, but Nelson retained Dunbar’s name. She then moved to Delaware. Nelson next married Henry Arthur Callis, a physician, in 1910; they divorced the following year. Nelson married her third and final husband, journalist Robert J. Nelson, in 1916.
Nelson is likely best known for her literary output as a poet. She regularly published in Opportunity and Crisis magazines between 1917 and 1928. Her poems also appeared in James Weldon Johnson’s seminal anthology, The Book of American Negro Poetry (Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1931). Nelson began to keep a personal diary in 1921. Her entries from 1926 to 1931 were later edited by scholar Gloria T. Hull for a volume entitled Give Us Each Day: The Diary of Alice Dunbar-Nelson (W. W. Norton, 1984). The volume explores Nelson’s professional life, her travels, friendships, financial hardship, and her lesbian relationships.
Toward the end of her public career, Nelson focused on journalism and public speaking. She gave numerous speeches as the executive secretary of the American Friends Inter-Racial Peace Committee from 1928 to 1931. From 1926 to 1930, Nelson wrote newspaper columns and became an activist for women’s suffrage and civil rights. In 1922, she advocated for the passage of the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill, and helped establish the Industrial School for Colored Girls in Delaware. One of her speeches was published and included in Masterpieces of Negro Eloquence (The Bookery Publishing Company, 1914), and examples of her dialect poetry, dramatic prose, and oratory were collected The Dunbar Speaker and Entertainer (J. L. Nichols & Co., 1920). Both are anthologies that Nelson edited.
Dunbar-Nelson died on September 18, 1935 in Philadelphia.