Addison Scurlock (1883-1964), photograph of Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Washington, D.C., 1915. Courtesy of University of Delaware Library, Museums, and Press, Special Collections & Museums. Alice Dunbar-Nelson Papers, MSS 113.27.459.

“I Am an American!” The Authorship and Activism of Alice Dunbar-Nelson

Online exhibition, events, and programs launching in fall 2020

How do writers and artists shape American culture? And how do politics influence literature? The Rosenbach’s new exhibition, “I Am an American!” The Authorship and Activism of Alice Dunbar-Nelson, explores these questions through the lens of an under-studied local author, teacher, and advocate for social justice who changed American society—starting more than one hundred years ago.

Alice Ruth Moore Dunbar-Nelson (1875–1935), who lived in both Philadelphia and Wilmington, Delaware, dedicated her life to teaching, writing, and civic activism. Her work was complex, encompassing the study of literature, behavioral health, and African American history and culture, as well as public school and reformatory education. A survivor of intimate partner violence, Dunbar-Nelson escaped an abusive marriage to the famous poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, becoming an important literary and cultural figure in her own right. She played a vital role in the Black women’s club movement, organized for women’s suffrage, and worked to expand social justice, all while establishing herself as an accomplished writer and journalist who published a newspaper and wrote short stories, novels, poetry, syndicated newspaper columns, and so much more.

This exhibition is the first to explore the long-overlooked career of one of the most influential contributors to the politics and culture of the region. Showcasing dozens of remarkable artifacts from Dunbar-Nelson’s life, including rare books, literary manuscripts, photographs, personal letters, and scrapbooks, it will uncover links between literature, civic education, and activism, and challenge visitors to think about how they can continue Dunbar-Nelson’s work today.

“I Am an American!” is a partnership of The Rosenbach, the Free Library of Philadelphia, and the University of Delaware Library, Museums and Press. It is curated by Jesse Erickson and Monet Timmons of the University of Delaware.

Do you want to take a stand against intimate partner violence, which Alice Dunbar-Nelson faced in her marriage to Paul Laurence Dunbar? Sign the iPledge® against violence, organized by The Rosenbach’s partner organization Women Against Abuse.

Support for “I am an American!” is provided by the Pennsylvania Abolition Society Endowment Fund of the Philadelphia Foundation.


Programs Related to “I Am an American!”

Seeing Alice Dunbar-Nelson with 2020 Vision: (Re)interpreting a Civil Rights Activist During an Election Year

Co-curators of “I Am an American!” The Authorship and Activism of Alice Dunbar-Nelson Monet Timmons and Jesse Erickson join us for a behind-the-scenes peek into the exhibition development process and get to know this under-studied local activist, journalist, novelist, educator, poet, and much more.

Aired on July 3, 2020. Program begins at the 9:00 minute mark.

Additional programs to be announced soon!