Lit Louisiana highlights the state’s contemporary literature and brings significant books and authors from the past to the readers of Verite.

There were few women writers who became well-known for their participation in the Harlem Renaissance, the era when cultural Afrocentrism arose in New York City. Among the most famous authors were Zora Neale Hurston, Jessie Redmon Fauset, Nella Larsen, and Dorothy West. 

One woman from New Orleans, however, was active and famous in the Harlem Renaissance too: Alice Dunbar-Nelson.

Tara T. Green, a graduate of Dillard and Louisiana State universities, has written a fascinating biography of the writer in “Love, Activism, and the Respectable Life of Alice Dunbar-Nelson.” 

The book’s title is an accurate description of the poet, journalist, and short story writer.

Nelson was born in New Orleans. Her mother was once enslaved, and her father’s identity was not revealed in the book, although speculated upon. Because Nelson was born after emancipation, she did not experience slavery. 

She pursued education, graduating from Straight College (the precursor to Dillard University) and began teaching in local schools. Her ambition led her to the Northeast where she worked as a writer and teacher and she married poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar. She kept his surname even after leaving their unhappy marriage. 

Green chronicles Nelson’s career and lovers to create a portrait of a woman with a full life, but one that was not often happy.

Nelson should be much more well known in her home city because of her work including the books “Violets and Other Tales” (Monthly Review, 1895) and “The Goodness of St. Rocque and Other Stories” (Dodd, Mead & Company 1899). The latter book describes scenes of New Orleans, although fictional, that are very close to the experiences of our communities. 

Nelson also wrote for the activist magazine of the Harlem Renaissance called The Crisis, founded by W.E.B. Du Bois as an organ of the NAACP.

Another aspect of Nelson’s life that readers can discover is her involvement with the Black literary women’s associations across the United States. In the late 1800s, the clubwomen’s movement began that included many southern teachers, Green writes. 

The Jefferson Dramatic Club, a “colored” organization presented a member’s dramatic farce “No End to a Joke” at Economy Hall in New Orleans. That member was the author Alice Ruth Moore Dunbar Nelson.


Green also is the author of previous books titled “See Me Naked: Black Women Defining Pleasure in the Interwar Era,” “A Fatherless Child: Autobiographical Perspectives of African American Men,” and “From the Plantation to the Prison: African-American Confinement


To see a video with Green speaking about Alice Dunbar-Nelson:

YouTube video

To read more about books by black women of the Harlem Renaissance, click here.

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Fatima Shaik is the author of seven books including "Economy Hall: The Hidden History of a Free Black Brotherhood," the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities 2022 Book of the Year. She is a native of...