Poet, diarist, essayist, and activist, Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson was part of the Creole community of New Orleans in the late 19th century who became a figure of national importance. Daughter of a former black slave mother and white seaman father, race, ethnicity, class and politics were all subjects that informed her writing. Much of what she said still resonates today.

Inspirational figures are often said to be visionaries and even ahead of their time – a description that sits comfortably with Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson. A precocious talent, she published her first book of short stories and poems, Violets and Other Tales, in 1895 when she was only 20. Prior to this, she’d already made her mark by graduating from Straight University, aged 15, at a time when fewer than 1% of Americans had a college education. The fact that she was also of mixed race, and a woman, in an era when prejudice was widespread, makes her achievement all the more impressive. She started work as a teacher in New Orleans but following publication of her book, left for Boston and then New York.

It was in New York that she started corresponding with husband-to-be, the black poet and journalist Paul Laurence Dunbar. They married in 1898, in Washington, but with her rumoured lesbian affairs and his heavy drinking, theirs was a stormy relationship and they separated in 1902.

Mixed race identity issues: the focus

Although he had encouraged her writing, Dunbar-Nelson rejected Dunbar’s frequent use of black dialect and strove to avoid the stereotypical treatment of black characters prevalent in the literature of the day. In 1899, she published another collection of stories, The Goodness of St. Rocque and Other Stories, which focused on Creole life in Louisiana, including the complexities of mixed raced identity – a subject she was well placed to write about and one that would occupy her for the rest of her life.

Teaching and editing

After splitting from her first husband, Dunbar-Nelson married twice more; to Henry Arthur Callis, a physician, in 1910, and to civil rights activist and poet, Robert J Nelson, in 1916. While teaching for over a decade at Howard High School in Delaware and at the State College for Coloured Students, Dunbar-Nelson continued to write and was co-editor of the A.M.E. Review, an influential church publication, and the progressive black newspaper, the Wilmington Advocate. She also helped publish The Dunbar Speaker and Entertainer, which was a literary anthology for a largely black audience. It was during this period that Dunbar-Nelson was regarded as a prominent figure in the flourishing of African-American cultural, artistic, and social expression, known as the Harlem Renaissance, throughout the 1920s.

Race relations wasn’t an easy subject to write about in America in the 1920s and 30s, but Dunbar-Nelson was able to do so with sensitivity without browbeating her readers. Through her essays and newspaper columns, she often drew on autobiographical material as a way of revealing racial prejudice.

Black rights activist

Away from her desk, she became an activist for the rights of African Americans and women, was a field organiser for the women’s suffrage movement, and campaigned against lynching. She died too young, aged only 60, in 1935, but left behind a diary – considered as one of only two such journals recording the experience of 19th-century African-American women – which was published in 1984, and a legacy that is still celebrated today.