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Born in New Orleans, Louisiana, on 19 July 1875, Alice Ruth Moore was the daughter of Patricia Wright, a seamstress, and Joseph Moore, a merchant marine, and, due to her middle-class social status and racially mixed appearance, she enjoyed the diverse culture of the city. She graduated Straight University (now Dillard University) in 1892 and began her career as a teacher in the public school system of New Orleans. In 1895, Dunbar-Nelson published her first collection of short stories and poems, Violets and Other Tales. Although many of the pieces were obviously marked by her inexperience, "Titee," "A Carnival Jangle," and "Little Miss Sophie" reveal her gift for capturing the language, setting, and pathos peculiar to New Orleans life at the turn of the century. She married Paul Laurence Dunbar after a courtship of letters that began when Dunbar saw her picture accompanying one of her poems published in the Monthly Review in 1897. They married in 1898 in a secret ceremony in New York, where she was teaching at the White Rose Mission (later, the White Rose Home for Girls in Harlem), which she helped to found. After her marriage, Dunbar-Nelson moved to Washington, D.C., with her husband.

Dunbar-Nelson continued to write and, in 1899, published The Goodness of St. Rocque and Other Stories, which included a revision of "Titee" (one with a happier ending), "Little Miss Sophie," and "A Carnival Jangle." Aside from the ending of "Titee," the revisions of these stories heralded the problems that she faced with later manuscripts. Publishers, eager for dialect stories such as those that made Paul Laurence Dunbar famous, opted for versions of these stories in which the characters spoke with pronounced creole dialects. Dunbar-Nelson's published fiction dealt exclusively with creole and anglicized characters; difference was characterized not in terms of race, but ethnicity. Many of her manuscripts and typescripts, both short stories and dramas, were rejected when Dunbar-Nelson explored the themes of racism, the color line, and oppression. This, coupled with the fact that Violets and St. Rocque, published so early in her career, were, until recently, the only published collections of her work, have made it difficult for both readers and critics to access Dunbar-Nelson's work.

When Dunbar-Nelson's marriage ended in 1902, she moved to Wilmington, Delaware, where she taught at Howard High School, and, during summer sessions, at the State College for Colored Students (Delaware State College) and at Howard University. Although she never saw Dunbar again after their volatile separation, Dunbar-Nelson continued to publish under the name of Alice Dunbar even after Dunbar died in 1906. During the years that she taught high school in Wilmington, Dunbar-Nelson chiefly published poetry, essays, and newspaper articles. In 1909, Modern Language Notes carried "Wordsworth's Use of Milton's Description of Pandemonium." Dunbar-Nelson entered into her second marriage, with Arthur Callis, in 1910; the couple was subsequently divorced. She acted as coeditor and writer for the A.M.E. Review, one of the most influential church publications of the era, from 1913 to 1914. Dunbar-Nelson published Masterpieces of Negro Eloquence (1914).

Dunbar-Nelson addressed the issues that confronted African-Americans and women of her time. In 1915, she served as field organizer for the woman's suffrage movement for the Middle Atlantic states; she was later field representative for the Woman's Committee of the Council of Defense in 1918 and, in 1924, she campaigned for the passage of the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill. Following her third and final marriage to Robert J. Nelson in 1916, Dunbar-Nelson published chiefly in the periodical press. "People of Color in Louisiana" (Journal of Negro History) in 1917 was followed by her poetry, which was published in the NAACP's Crisis, Ebony and Topaz, and the Urban League's Opportunity. Countee Cullen also included three of her most popular poems, "I Sit and I Sew," "Snow in October," and "Sonnet," in his collection of African-American poets, Caroling Dusk (1927). In 1920, Dunbar-Nelson edited and published The Dunbar Speaker and Entertainer, a literary and news magazine directed toward a black audience, and, with Nelson, coedited the Wilmington Advocate. Her press publications included "The Colored United States" (Messenger, 1924), "From a Woman's Point of View" (later, "Une Femme Dit," column for the Pittsburgh Courier, 1926), "As in a Looking Glass" (column for the Washington Eagle, 1926-1930), and "So It Seems to Alice Dunbar-Nelson" (column for the Pittsburgh Courier, 1930). Economic conditions precluded Dunbar-Nelson from concentrating solely on her writings; however, her corpus stands as a major achievement. She died on 18 September 1935 in Philadelphia.

See also: Erlene Stetson, ed., Black Sister (1981). Gloria T. Hull, Color, Sex, and Poetry: Three Women Writers of the Harlem Renaissance (1987). Ann Allen Shockley, Afro-American Women Writers, 1746-1933 (1988; reprint, 1989). Gloria T. Hull, ed., The Works of Alice Dunbar-Nelson, 3 vols. (1988).