Past Out by Liz Highleyman
Who was Alice Dunbar-Nelson?
by Liz Highleyman - SGN Contributing Writer

Several leading male literary lights of the 1920s Harlem Renaissance were Queer, but their Sapphic forerunner Alice Dunbar-Nelson is less well-known. Bisexual and of mixed race, Dunbar-Nelson also crossed boundaries of literary genres.

Dunbar-Nelson was born Alice Ruth Moore in New Orleans in July 1875, to a merchant seaman and a seamstress. Of Creole heritage, she had light skin and auburn hair, for which she was relentlessly tormented by her black classmates. A precocious girl, she entered Straight College (now Dillard University) at age 15, completing a teacher training program in two years; she would later continue her education at Cornell University, Columbia, and the University of Pennsylvania.

Dunbar-Nelson began her career as a public school teacher in her hometown and also exercised her talent for writing. At age 20, she published Violets and Other Tales (1895), likely the first-ever short story collection by an African-American woman. Shortly thereafter, she joined the "great migration" of southern blacks to northern cities, settling first in Boston and later in New York City, where she was active in community work and co-founded the White Rose Mission settlement house for girls in Harlem.

Dunbar-Nelson's writing and photo in a literary magazine captured the attention of "Negro Poet Laureate" Paul Laurence Dunbar. In 1898, after corresponding for two years, they eloped over the objections of her family, who eschewed Dunbar's dark skin and limited financial means. Though some in the community held them up as the ideal African-American couple - a sort of black Robert and Elizabeth Browning - their relationship was stormy, exacerbated by Dunbar's alcoholism and depression. In 1902, after Dunbar beat her nearly to death, Dunbar-Nelson left him and moved to Delaware, never to see him again; Dunbar died four years later, at age 34.

As many school boards at the time did not employ married women, Dunbar-Nelson gave up teaching during her marriage and focused on writing. She became known for her chronicles of Creole life in Louisiana, using the local patois for her characters' voices. According to scholar Gloria Hull, Dunbar-Nelson "helped to create a black short story tradition for a reading public conditioned to expect only plantation and minstrel stereotypes." Dunbar-Nelson's stories often addressed the social limitations placed on women, as well as issues of identity and crossing color lines. Light-skinned enough to pass for white (which she occasionally did, for example, to attend segregated theaters), Dunbar-Nelson was accused by some contemporaries of being prejudiced toward darker blacks, especially the poor and uneducated. Yet rather than assimilate into white society, she became an increasingly vocal advocate for black empowerment and racial equality.

In Delaware, Dunbar-Nelson took a teaching job at all-black Howard High School in Wilmington, where she entered a long same-sex relationship with its German/Puerto Rican principal, Edwina Kruse. After that affair cooled, Dunbar-Nelson married Henry Arthur Callis, a fellow teacher 12 years her junior, but that lasted only about a year. She married her third husband, African-American journalist and civil rights activist Robert Nelson, in 1916. Nelson learned of her extramarital Lesbian liaisons - including those with journalist Fay Jackson Robinson and artist Helene London - by reading her diary; despite occasional fits of rage, however, he tolerated these affairs, and the marriage lasted until Dunbar-Nelson's death.

In 1920, Dunbar-Nelson was fired from her teaching job due to her increasing political activism on issues ranging from women's suffrage to anti-lynching laws. "Lynchings only occur where Negroes are afraid," she once wrote. "When they cease to fear, the white man turns tail and skulks away." During World War I, she served on the woman's committee of the Council of National Defense, which managed the domestic war effort, and later became executive secretary of the American Friends Inter-Racial Peace Committee. Though a progressive social justice advocate with no children of her own, she espoused conservative views about working mothers at a time when black women were taking non-domestic jobs and having fewer children. "Churches, social agencies, schools, and Sunday schools cannot do the work of mothers and heads of families," she wrote. "The training of human souls needs to begin at home in the old-fashioned family life."

Less inspired to write poetry and short stories as the years went on, Dunbar-Nelson increasingly turned to journalism, co-editing the Wilmington Advocate (a progressive black paper) with her husband and penning popular newspaper columns. Her circle included leading black activists such as W.E.B. DuBois and Mary McLeod Bethune, and during the heyday of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, she was friends with up-and-coming literary stars such as Langston Hughes. In failing health in the early '30s, Dunbar-Nelson moved with her husband to Philadelphia, where she died of heart failure in September 1935.

Dunbar-Nelson burned her Lesbian love poems before her death, but her diary (which included snippets of the lost poems) survived. The journal, according to historian Lillian Faderman, "reveals the existence of an active black Bisexual network among prominent 'club women' who had husbands but managed to enjoy Lesbian liaisons as well as a camaraderie with one another over their shared secrets."

Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics. She can be reached care of this publication or at PastOut@qsyndicate.com.