February 24, 2021 – Alice Ruth Moore Dunbar-Nelson, writer

Image – WilmingtonDE.gov

From Wilmington Delaware, the story of Alice Ruth Moore Dunbar-Nelson (1875-1935), a writer and activist starts with hope.
by Alice Dunbar-Nelson
Wild seas of tossing, writhing waves,
A wreck half-sinking in the tortuous gloom;
One man clings desperately, while Boreas raves,
       And helps to blot the rays of moon and star,
       Then comes a sudden flash of light, which gleams on shores afar.
Alice Dunbar Nelson was born in New Orleans, where she graduated from Straight University in New Orleans with a teaching credential and taught elementary school. Her first collection of poems was published in 1895.
She headed north first to Boston and then New York City where she co-founded and taught at the White Rose Mission a home for girls in Manhattan. She married in 1889, Paul Dunbar while living in Washington who turned out to be abusive, alcoholic, and with tuberculous. They separated in 1902 and he died in 1906. Alice Dunbar then moved to Wilmington Delaware and taught at Howard High School and the precursor to Delaware State University. In 1907, she took leave of her job and became a student at Cornell University return in 1908.
She wrote poetry all her life and continued to be an activist for African Americans and women’s rights. She campaigned for the passage of the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill in 1924 which was blocked in congress of the Southern Democrats.
During her career, she was published in many publications but according to her diary entries:
”Damn bad luck I have with my pen. Some fate has decreed I shell never make money by it.”
She was often denied pay for articles and had issues even receiving recognition for her work. In 1920 she attended Social Justice Day on October 1 against the will of her principal, and for that she lost her job. The School Board, on her behalf, got her reinstated, but she would not return. In 1932, she and her husband moved to Philadelphia and being of poor health, she died in 1934. Her papers are at the University of Delaware a place I worked have have found memories of in the 80s and early 90s.
The poem “Hope” poem is in the public domain
This poem reminds me of all the times I was on deadline (prom, wedding, dance, event) and I wanted to be anywhere else. This poem, though is much deeper as the author, Ms Dunbar-Nelson wants to do anything to help but being a woman in the early 1900s you get to Sit and Sew.

I Sit and Sew


I sit and sew—a useless task it seems,

My hands grown tired, my head weighed down with dreams—

The panoply of war, the martial tred of men,

Grim-faced, stern-eyed, gazing beyond the ken

Of lesser souls, whose eyes have not seen Death,

Nor learned to hold their lives but as a breath—

But—I must sit and sew.


I sit and sew—my heart aches with desire—

That pageant terrible, that fiercely pouring fire

On wasted fields, and writhing grotesque things

Once men. My soul in pity flings

Appealing cries, yearning only to go

There in that holocaust of hell, those fields of woe—

But—I must sit and sew.


The little useless seam, the idle patch;

Why dream I here beneath my homely thatch,

When there they lie in sodden mud and rain,

Pitifully calling me, the quick ones and the slain?

You need me, Christ! It is no roseate dream

That beckons me—this pretty futile seam,

It stifles me—God, must I sit and sew?


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