Every generation has its heroes.

ALICE DUNBAR-NELSON (1875–1935), poet, novelist, journalist, teacher, diarist, women’s suffrage organizer, civil rights leader, lecturer, political leader, and survivor of intimate partner violence, is a hero for our time. She combined her skills as an author and political activist to fight for social change. 

Born into the first generation of Black Americans after the end of slavery, Dunbar-Nelson represents a bridge between the Reconstruction Era following the Civil War and the civil rights movement of the mid-1900s. Her writings and social causes, which centered on race, gender, and power, feel as urgent today as they did during Dunbar-Nelson’s lifetime.

This exhibition uses an archive of Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s life—consisting of her diaries, letters, photographs, scrapbooks, and many other artifacts—to introduce the author to Philadelphia, a city she called home. Help us discover this influential figure.

As you explore the exhibition, we invite you to consider how Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s life and work can inspire residents of the United States today. How much has changed for women (especially women of color), LGBTQ+ people, Black Americans, and other people of color since Dunbar-Nelson pursued her activism in the early 20th century? How can we carry on the work she started? How can artifacts found in museums, libraries, and archives help us discover previously overlooked historical figures?

Thematic sections structure “I Am an American!,” meaning that the exhibition offers interpretive views into the life, times, and work of Alice Dunbar-Nelson.Thus, the documents and objects on view are not organized chronologically.

Timeline of Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s Life

And a Note on Name Variants


Alice Ruth Moore born in New Orleans, Louisiana


Graduates from Straight University with a teaching degree


Publishes first collection of stories, Violets and Other Tales; moves to the U.S. Northeast


Works with Victoria Earle Matthews in Brooklyn, New York, at the White Rose Mission


Marries poet Paul Laurence Dunbar


Separates from Paul Laurence Dunbar; moves to Wilmington, Delaware


Paul Laurence Dunbar dies


Undertakes one year of graduate study at Cornell University


Returns to Wilmington


Publishes influential academic paper, “Wordsworth’s Use of Milton’s Description of the Building of Pandemonium” in Modern Language Notes


Marries physician Henry Arthur Callis


The Crisis, the official magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, founded; Dunbar-Nelson later published extensively in the magazine


Publishes the edited volume Masterpieces of Negro Eloquence: The Best Speeches Delivered by the Negro from the Days of Slavery to the Present Time


Serves as field organizer for the women’s suffrage movement


Marries author and political activist Robert Nelson


Publishes the edited volume The Dunbar Speaker and Entertainer: Containing the Best Prose and Poetic Selections by and About the Negro Race


Takes charge of the Wilmington Advocate newspaper with Robert Nelson; operates until 1922


Works to support passage of the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill under consideration by Congress


Begins teaching at the Industrial School for Colored Girls in Marshallton, Delaware


Joins the American Interracial Peace Committee as the organization’s executive secretary


Moves to Philadelphia


Dies in Philadelphia


Becomes honorary member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority


University of Delaware Library acquires Alice Dunbar-Nelson papers; selections from diaries published


Dunbar-Nelson’s niece Pauline Young donates more papers to University of Delaware Library; library also acquires the papers of Dunbar-Nelson’s publisher Dodd, Mead & Company

Alice Dunbar-Nelson was known by—and published under—many names during her life, including Alice Ruth Moore, Alice Dunbar, and finally Alice Dunbar-Nelson. She also used various pseudonyms, or pen names. This variety reflects name changes in light of her marriages, as well as how she chose to identify herself in her published works. We have chosen to use the name “Alice Dunbar-Nelson” throughout the interpretive text in “I Am an American!” for purposes of clarity.

Alert: Content Note

This exhibition addresses topics including intimate partner abuse, sexual assault, and race-based violence.

For the optimal viewing experience, please engage with this exhibition from a desktop or laptop computer.  (The exhibition has also been designed to function on mobile devices.)