Skip to main content
The Center on Colfax

Alice Dunbar Nelson


Alice Dunbar Nelson. Photo credited to Twentieth Century Negro Literature by Daniel Wallace Culp.

  • Graduated from Straight University

  • Taught in New Orleans Schools

  • Participated in Phillis Wheatley Club

  • Wrote for The Women's Era

  • Helped found the Equal Suffrage Study Club

  • Diaries published in 1984

Born Alice Ruth Moore in 1875 New Orleans, the activist showed an early interest in education, graduating from Straight University (now Dillard University) in 1892. Though she began teaching in the New Orleans school systems at age 17, young Alice eventually gravitated towards writing poetry and fiction. She also began to work as a journalist and essayist. As the child of a formerly enslaved mother and a white father, she often wrote of the “Creole condition,” in which mixed-race children of the era felt pressure to deny their Black heritage in order to “pass” as white.

Dunbar Nelson’s keen understanding of the intersections of race and gender informed her writing and activism throughout her life. As early as the 1890s, Dunbar Nelson began participating in New Orleans-based women’s organizations, including the Phillis Wheatley Club, named after a prominent Black poet of colonial America. Around this time, she also began writing for The Women’s Era, a newspaper created by and for Black women. During the 1910s, she became more directly involved in the suffragist movement, helping found the Equal Suffrage Study Club in 1914 while also working as a community organizer. She advocated in particular for Black women’s access not just to the voting booth, but other necessities such as healthcare and education. After the passage of the 19th Amendment, Dunbar Nelson continued her advocacy work as a journalist and lecturer. Though she was twice married, Dunbar Nelson had a rocky relationship with her first husband and was not strictly monogamous during either union. While both single and married, she cultivated multiple relationships with other women, made all the more clear by her detailed and introspective diary entries. However, Dunbar Nelson kept these diaries secret and their contents were not published until 1984. In them, she also frankly discussed the racist and sexist barriers that often feel into her path, hampering her career and finances. She also reportedly burned a connection of her “lesbian poems” before her death in 1935. While she also had platonic friendships with women such as fellow activist Mary McLeod Bethune, her private correspondence makes it clear that she was an active member of the quiet network of queer women voting rights activists.