Life of Alice Dunbar-Nelson

Written by: Shantell LaRoche
About: Alice Dunbar-Nelson

"The end of Theodore Russ.... Life snuffed out at the end of a noose.... How I wish all those who sent him to his fate could swing alongside him."

Alice Dunbar-Nelson wrote these words in her diary in 1930 after Theodore Russ was sentenced to death for raping a white woman. Nelson knew a lot about the case, because she was deeply involved in it. Born in 1875 in New Orleans, Nelson lived through the Post-Reconstruction period and knew of many men who were unjustly lynched by mobs. She believed Russ was falsely accused and fought unsuccessfully to win him a pardon.

I admire Alice Dunbar-Nelson because she fought not just for herself but for others. Over 100 years ago it was a lot harder to fight for your rights than it is now. Back then African Americans such as Dunbar-Nelson had to overcome the fact that it was illegal for their parents to get an education or to vote. In fact, Dunbar-Nelson's mother was born a slave in Opelousas, Louisiana. Even when those rights came along, local laws, customs, and terrorism kept African Americans from gaining the power they needed to fight for justice. Throughout the time of lynchings, she worked to free innocent men.

Dunbar-Nelson seems to have always fought for justice. She did not just stand by when bad things went on. We need more people like this amazing woman today. I know recently I was walking home from school and saw a big crowd of people gathered. As I got closer, I realized it was a couple of kids fighting. Everybody just stood around and watched. This small example goes for bigger issues too, like drugs, poverty, and poor education. Dunbar-Nelson would not just watch things get worse; if she were alive today, she would do something.

When she was living she spent time pulling other people together to help her. Like many black women of her day, she formed organizations to fight for justice and to make things better for her people. She was a big part of the women's club movement, along with other amazing women from the early 1900's such as Mary Church Terrell and Ida B. Wells. Dunbar-Nelson was involved in the Federation of Colored Women's Club, The League of Colored Republican Women, and Delta Sigma Theta Sorority.

Dunbar-Nelson did more than just work with organizations and fight an unjust court system. She also was a great writer who published many books of stories and poems. This is a lot to say for someone whose mother was born a slave. And she used her writing also to help other people. She helped create a progressive black newspaper named the Advocate from 1920 to 1922. Dunbar-Nelson even made a living as a writer and lecturer, even though she got her start during a time when women could not even vote. The life of this amazing woman gives young black women like me a great example of what we can do living in our time of even more opportunity than Dunbar-Nelson had.