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

From 10/20/2020 to 06/01/2021

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.

View The Digital Exhibition

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.

View The Digital Exhibition

“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.

Jesse R. Erickson, Ph.D., MLIS, is Coordinator of Special Collections and Digital Humanities, Assistant Professor in the Department of English, and Associate Director of the Interdisciplinary Humanities Research Center at the University of Delaware. His research specializations are in ethnobibliography, African American print culture, and the transnational publishing history of Ouida. 



Monet Timmons received her B.A. in English and African American Studies at Emory University in Atlanta, GA. Her research focuses on Black women in the archive from the late 19th century to the early 20th century. Through public humanities work, her research uncovers the fragments of these archives to reveal the complexities of these women’s lives to make a larger intervention about Black women’s lived experiences across space and time. Monet is currently a third-year English PhD student and an African American Public Humanities (AAPHI) Fellow at the University of Delaware.  


It became evident early in the project’s exploratory phase that the story of Alice Dunbar-Nelson holds tremendous resonances for the political, social, literary, and artistic forces at work shaping American life in 2020, so The Rosenbach and Free Library assembled a Committee of Community Advisers to lend guidance and insight on how to interpret Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s story for modern audiences.  The committee includes 27 community leaders ranging from poets, historians, and authors to fellow museum professionals and civic activists, all of whom share a commitment to bringing Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s life work to the public’s attention.  Learn more about the Committee of Community Advisers and the creation of this exhibition on our blog.

Programs and Resources Related to “I Am an American!”

Amplifying Our Voices: Empowerment Through Poetry & Community presented by Women In Transition
Wednesday, October 21 | 7:00-8:30 p.m.

Join Women In Transition (WIT) for a virtual evening of poetry to heal, share your stories, and speak out about violence, trauma, empowerment, and joy. The 4th Annual Amplifying Our Voices is a safe space for us to speak our truths and celebrate our strengths, with readings by poets: Trapeta B. Mayson (Philadelphia’s 2020-2021 Poet Laureate), Beth Feldman Brandt, Kai Davis, M. Nzadi Keita, Rodrick Minor, and Sham-e-Ali Nayeem

‘Hear Me Out’ Dialogue Series: Does My Vote Count?
Tuesday, October 27 | 5:30-7:30 p.m.

In light of the upcoming election, the first of the Hear Me Out series will focus on patrons’ relationship with elections. The session will explore personal and familial experiences with voting as it relates to trust in the voting system. In collaboration with the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, The Free Library of Philadelphia presents Does My Vote Count?: A ‘Hear Me Out’ Dialogue. Learn more.


“I Am An American!” Curator Talk with Monet Timmons (Members Only Program)
Thursday, October 28 | 7:00-8:00 p.m.

Rosenbach members are invited to a special conversation with Monet Timmons, co-curator of “I Am an American!”: The Authorship and Activism of Alice Dunbar-Nelson. Timmons, a doctoral student and African American Public Humanities Fellow in the Department of English at the University of Delaware, will offer her reflections on Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s political, social, and literary work, and consider what lessons her life holds for Americans today.



“If I Had Known”: Education, Performance, Activism. A Symposium in Honor of the Life and Legacy of Alice Dunbar-Nelson
Friday, November 6 | 11:00 a.m. – 1:00 p.m.

The Rosenbach in partnership with University of Delaware Library, Museum, and Press’s Department of Special Collections is opening the first major retrospective online exhibition on Dunbar-Nelson this fall. This symposium will mark the occasion with invited guest speakers and artists who celebrate the spirit of her life’s work. Combining performance and scholarship in a single virtual event, the symposium features performances from socially-conscious content creators who interact with public audiences in their work and talks that engage with the latest Dunbar-Nelson scholarship and explorations of the writers that would follow in her footsteps. This symposium looks at how education and performance traverse paths of civic activism. It will be as much a celebration of the public humanities as a testament to collaborations between the worlds of archives, museums, education, and the arts.


Voices of Change: A Podcast Inspired by Alice Dunbar-Nelson

This new podcast explores themes, topics, and issues raised in the exhibition. Each episode highlights voices involved in shaping the exhibition and considers how Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s life, times, and work speak to pressing issues facing the United States today. Voices of Change will be released alongside the digital exhibition “I Am an American!” on October 20, 2020 but you can listen to the first episode here.


Seeing Alice Dunbar-Nelson with 2020 Vision: (Re)interpreting a Civil Rights Activist During an Election Year
Program aired July 3, 2020.

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.

Support for “I am an American!” is provided by the Pennsylvania Abolition Society Endowment Fund of the Philadelphia Foundation, the Pine Tree Foundation of New York, and an anonymous donor.

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.