Alice Dunbar-Nelson was born on July 19, 1875, as Alice Ruth Moore, in New Orleans, Louisiana. She attended public school in New Orleans and enrolled in a teacher's training program at Straight University in 1890. Upon receiving her degree in 1892, she began teaching in New Orleans.
Alice Ruth Moore's first book, Violets and Other Tales, a collection of stories, was published in 1895. In 1897, Moore moved to Brooklyn, New York, where she taught at the White Rose Mission. At this time Moore began corresponding with the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar and in March, 8, 1898, she married Dunbar and moved to Washington, D.C. The marriage lasted until 1902, when they were legally separated; Dunbar died on February 6, 1906.
Following her separation from Paul Laurence Dunbar, Alice Dunbar moved to Wilmington, Delaware. She took a position as a teacher and administrator at Howard High School which she held until 1920. During this period she also directed the summer session for in-service teachers at State College for Colored Students (the predecessor of Delaware State College) in Dover, and taught two years in the summer session at the Hampton Institute. In 1907, she took a leave of absence from her teaching position in Wilmington and enrolled as a student at Cornell University, returning to Wilmington in 1908. In April, 1916, Alice Dunbar married Robert J. Nelson, a journalist, politician, and civil rights activist.
Although Alice Dunbar-Nelson had been active in social, political, and cultural organizations since her youth, this involvement increased around the time of her marriage to Robert Nelson. She was extremely active in Delaware and regional politics, as well as in the emerging civil rights and women's suffrage movements. In 1915, she was field organizer for the Middle Atlantic States in the campaign for women's suffrage. During World War I, Dunbar-Nelson served as a field representative of the Woman's Committee of the Council of National Defense. Subsequently she served on the State Republican Committee of Delaware and helped direct political activities among black women. From 1928-1931, she was executive secretary of the American Friends Inter-Racial Peace Committee.
From 1920-1922, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, together with Robert Nelson, was co-editor and publisher of the Wilmington Advocate, a progressive Black newspaper. From this period on, Dunbar-Nelson maintained an active career as a journalist. She was a highly successful syndicated columnist and wrote numerous reviews and essays for newspapers, magazines, and academic journals. Dunbar-Nelson also continued to write stories, poems, plays, and novels, much of which remains unpublished.
During the 1920s and 1930s, Alice Dunbar-Nelson's prominence as a political and social activist reached its high point. She reached a wide audience through her journalism; she was also in demand as a public speaker and gave numerous lectures and speeches on political, social, and cultural topics. Alice Dunbar-Nelson's life and career during this period is documented in detail in her diaries. Although Alice Dunbar-Nelson appears to have maintained a daily diary for most of her adult life, surviving portions bulk for the period 1921-1931. These surviving examples offer a comprehensive look at Dunbar-Nelson's daily activities for the most productive period of her career.
In 1932, Alice Dunbar-Nelson moved from Delaware to Philadelphia when Robert Nelson took a position as a member of the Pennsylvania Athletic Commission. By this time Alice Dunbar-Nelson's health had begun to deteriorate and she was frequently ill. In September, 1935, she was admitted to the hospital with a heart ailment from which she did not recover. Alice Dunbar-Nelson died on September 18, 1935, at the age of sixty.
The Alice Dunbar-Nelson papers consist of the literary, professional, and personal papers of Alice Dunbar-Nelson. The papers include an extensive collection of her incoming correspondence. Of particular note is her correspondence (1895-1904) with Paul Laurence Dunbar, which also includes her letters to Dunbar. The Alice Dunbar-Nelson Papers also include a comprehensive collection of manuscripts of her writing, including novels, stories, poetry, drama, and essays. Dunbar-Nelson maintained a daily diary for most of her adult life and the extent portions of her diaries are present in her papers. The Alice Dunbar-Nelson papers also include significant collections of family papers, scrapbooks, newspaper clippings, ephemera, and memorabilia.