“Alice Dunbar-Nelson sought after the truth of the human spirit and the vast wonders of togetherness…Each day, we must have the inner strength to learn to become part of a more significant cause for others and, more importantly, for ourselves. Her significance portrayed an incredible equalizer in us all…” Charles Edward Williams
Charles Edward Williams’ paintings, commissioned by the Delaware Art Museum, invite us to experience the creative life and political activism of Alice Dunbar-Nelson. His mixed-media portraits capture the likeness and character of the poet, teacher, ground-breaking champion of human rights, and woman of wit and generosity.
Born Alice Ruth Moore in New Orleans in 1875, her mother was a former slave of Black and Native American heritage and her father was a white seaman who abandoned the family. Dunbar-Nelson resisted strict racial categories and preferred to identify with the Creole community, free people of color with mixed European and Black ancestry. After graduating as Class Poet from Straight (now Dillard) University, an African American institution in New Orleans, she became a teacher in the city’s public schools. She was determined to become a professional writer.
Dunbar-Nelson soon took over the “Woman’s Column” on a local magazine and changed its emphasis from beauty and homemaking to education, anti-lynching advocacy, and women’s suffrage. She contributed articles to Boston’s monthly newspaper, The Woman’s Era, the first such publication for and by African American women. In 1895, her Violets and Other Tales, a collection of short stories and poems, appeared in the Boston Monthly Review. During the two years she lived in New York City, she continued to write, and she joined African-American women’s clubs dedicated to racial advancement in the face of Jim Crow laws and Black Codes.
When she was 23, Dunbar-Nelson married nationally-recognized poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. He became violently abusive, and they separated four years later. In 1902, Dunbar-Nelson moved to Wilmington and became head of the English department at Delaware’s only high school for African Americans, where she added Black writers to the standard curriculum of European and American literature. Her essays appeared in The Crisis and leading journals of the Harlem Renaissance. In her fiction, she often explored the experience and emotions of interracial characters. She spoke to audiences across the country about topics such as equal access to voting, medical care, education, and worker’s rights, especially for women and Blacks, but encompassing all Americans. She tirelessly supported unsuccessful efforts to pass a Congressional anti-lynching law. In 1916, she married Robert Nelson, with whom she published the African-American Wilmington Advocate (1920-22).
Dunbar-Nelson was fired by Howard High School in 1920 for taking leave to attend a racial justice conference. Concentrating on newspaper columns, she continued to cover politics, women’s issues, art and music criticism (she was a cellist and pianist), fashion, and personality profiles. She was active on the American Friends Inter-Racial Peace Committee. In 1932, Dunbar-Nelson moved to Philadelphia, where she died from a heart ailment in 1935.
Williams drew on historical photographs for his portraits. His painting I AM (Queen) is an interpretation of R. P. Bellsmith’s portrait, taken at the end of the 1890s. The photograph depicts Dunbar-Nelson’s patterned collar, necklaces, and elaborate puffed sleeves. Williams’ brushstrokes simplify these details, but preserve the filigreed hair ornament. He intensifies the sleeves’ transition from dark to light to evoke the dilemmas Dunbar-Nelson encountered with rigid racial barriers. The face is a remarkably faithful recreation of the photograph. Dunbar-Nelson looks slightly away from us, her expression contemplative and vulnerable. On the glass over the image, Williams’ etched her verses I Am An American!, which she described as a “completion” of Elias Lieberman’s poem of the same name, which first appeared in Everybody’s Magazine in 1916 and presents two types of Americans.
One set of ancestors—embracing many ethnic groups—fought the American Revolution; others’ forebears—like his—fled terrors abroad. Both speakers proclaim “I Am an American.” By 1928, when the poem had become a classroom standard, its publication as a Collier’s editorial under the heading “Americans All” prompted Dunbar-Nelson’s verses in her syndicated column for the Associated Negro Press. “He ignores the Indian and forgets the Negro,” she wrote, asking “how would it do to add a verse to the poem that the Negro child might recite?” Her ancestors, she writes, were brought here and labored to build the new country.
They, too, “shed their blood” to preserve its “ideal of Democracy.” Her verses conclude: “I am proud of my past. I hold faith in my future. I am a Negro. I am an American.” The poem is a declaration of self-respect and a plea for justice from a woman in her early fifties who has battled racism for decades. Its pairing with the image of a youthful and still-untested Dunbar-Nelson crystallizes Williams’ conviction that she “remained faithful to self-discovery and shared those tender truths for helping us humans to find our way.”
For I Sit and Sew #3, from a series of seven portraits, Williams chose a 1915 studio photograph by Addison Scurlock, a preeminent Black photographer in Washington, D. C. On the glass, he etched verses from Dunbar-Nelson’s 1918 poem I Sit and Sew, a soliloquy lamenting the United States Armed Forces’ exclusion of Black women from wartime overseas nursing. Bitterly frustrated, the speaker condemns this waste of patriotism and talent even at the expense of suffering soldiers:
Why dream I here beneath my homely thatch, When there they lie in sodden mud and rain, Pitifully calling me, the quick ones and the slain?
You need me, Christ! It is no roseate dream That beckons me —this pretty futile seam,
It stifles me—God, must I sit and sew?
A lifelong seeker of interracial harmony, the poet must again confront insistence on segregation over justice and compassion. Williams stitched the poem’s title on each portrait’s star-patterned fabric as if to emphasize sewing’s tedious repetition, but he used gold thread—perhaps to symbolize the value of the gifts rejected by the nation. While the poem’s words are harsh, Dunbar-Nelson looks directly at us with a calm gaze, as if to challenge our own values, or perhaps to appeal for our understanding.
Throughout her career, Dunbar-Nelson often won over audiences with her conversational style and approachable manner. Williams selected casual, undated images to show her carefree side. In Wish You Were Here #1, she wears a bucket hat for a fishing expedition, one of her favorite activities.
Williams stitched the meandering shape of the Mississippi in blue fishing line alongside the figure. The word tracing aptly captures the spirit of Williams’ commission. He unveils clues to Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s visionary life that photographs cannot reveal. And the allusion to translucent drawings on fragile paper reminds us that our own vision must help complete the picture. Such traces lead us to Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s faith in “the truth of the human spirit and the vast wonders of togetherness.”
The University of Delaware holds The Alice Dunbar-Nelson Papers, a comprehensive collection of over 2,500 literary, professional, and personal manuscripts, and related materials: https://udspace.udel.edu/handle/19716/24346
© Mary F. Holahan