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African American Women Writers of the 19th Century: Delaney-Fordham

African American Women Writers of the 19th Century guide includes a digital collection of published works by 19th-century black women writers, biographies for each author, citations and much more

Image of Alice Dunbar - Nelson. Date Issued 1923.

Alice Dunbar - Nelson.

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division, The New York Public Library. "Alice Dunbar - Nelson." The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1923.

Lucy A. Delaney

Lucy A. Delaney (c. 1830-c.1890s), who was born in slavery in St. Louis, Missouri, was fiercely determined to be free, just like her older sister Nancy who had escaped to Canada, and their mother, Polly Berry, who had escaped and then secured her freedom in court, on the grounds that she was a freeborn who had been kidnapped as a child.

Lucy Ann was twelve years old when she escaped to Chicago, Illinois, where her mother was living. Polly Berry promptly set about suing for her daughter's freedom on the grounds that she was the daughter of a freeborn and hence could not be enslaved. Although mother and daughter were eventually victorious, their case was not dealt with swiftly: Lucy Ann was forced to spend more than a year in jail pending its resolution.

Once Lucy Ann Berry was freed at the age of fourteen, she and her mother made a tolerable life in Chicago, plying their trades: Lucy, a seamstress; Polly, a laundress. When, in 1845, Lucy married Frederick Turner, Polly moved with the couple to Quincy, Illinois. Lucy's marriage was short-lived: Frederick died in an explosion aboard the steamer on which he worked. Soon after Frederick's death, mother and daughter returned to St. Louis, where in 1849 Lucy married Zachariah Delaney. This marriage lasted for more than four decades, and the couple had four children, all of whom died young.

During the remainder of her life, Lucy Ann Berry Turner Delaney, who joined the Methodist Episcopal Church in the mid-1850s, worked for the uplift of her people through various organizations, including the Female Union and the Daughters of Zion. Her desire to inspire her people to make the most of freedom was behind her decision to put into print her dramatic life story, which was published around 1891: From Darkness Cometh the Light; or, Struggles for Freedom.

Alice Dunbar-Nelson

Alice Dunbar-Nelson (1875-1935) was born Alice Ruth Moore, in New Orleans, Louisiana, where she attended high school and then completed a teacher-training program at Straight College (now Dillard University). Over the years she taught at various institutions, but teaching was far from her only talent. She knew bookkeeping and stenography which she used occasionally to support herself. She was also an above average student of the piano and cello and could act. Her finest gift and reigning passion, however, was writing.

Alice Ruth Moore's debut as a serious writer came in 1895 with the publication of Violets and Other Tales, a collection of poetry, short stories, essays, reviews and other prose pieces. This little book brought Alice to the attention of the most celebrated poet of the day Paul Laurence Dunbar. A friendship that began with correspondence blossomed into a romance, and Alice and Paul married in 1898, setting up house in Washington, D.C.

This marriage boosted Alice's literary career. Although she was a good writer, had she not been Mrs. Dunbar, Paul's publisher (Dodd, Mead and Company) probably never would have simultaneously published in 1899 Paul's Poems of Cabin and Field and Alice's The Goodness of St. Rocque and Other Stories. Alice and Paul seemed the ideal couple, but their marriage was fraught with troubles. The Dunbars separated in 1901 (Paul died in 1906). Alice Ruth Moore Dunbar married again: in 1910, to Henry Arthur Callis, a teacher at the time; and in 1916, to journalist Robert J. Nelson, with whom she published the Wilmington Advocate.

Over the years this multi-talented woman continued to write. She contributed poetry and prose to the Journal of Negro History, the Messenger, the Pittsburgh Courier, and other periodicals. She also published two more books: Masterpieces of Negro Eloquence (1914) and The Dunbar Speaker and Entertainer (1920).

Julia A. J. Foote

Julia A. J. Foote (1823-1900), the daughter of former slaves, was born in Schenectady, New York. Her parents were devout Christians, and she embraced their faith at an early age, joining the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church when she was fifteen years old, by which time she was living in Albany with her adopted family.

Marriage in 1841 to a seafarer, George Foote, took eighteen-year-old Julia to Boston, where she joined this city's African Methodist Episcopal Zion church. Julia Foote's ever-increasing hunger for knowledge of the Holy was applauded; however, her insistence that God had called her to preach put a strain on her relationships with those who believed it absolutely inappropriate and downright wrong for a woman to be a preacher. Julia's parents did not support her call. Her husband did not support her call. Her pastor, Reverend Jeheiel C. Beman, not only did not think she should preach, but he also censured her for engaging in ministry in her home.

Convinced that she had to answer to a higher power, Foote persevered, finding pulpits, homes, revival camps and other venues where her gifts of the Spirit were welcomed. Julia A. Foote preached up a storm: early on in New York, New England and the Mid-Atlantic states, and later, in Michigan, Ohio and Canada. Eventually, she settled in Cleveland, Ohio, where in 1879, she published her autobiography: A Brand Plucked From the Fire.

We do not know how or where this evangelist spent the 1880s and early 1890s, but we know that in 1894 Julia A. Foote became the A.M.E. Zion Church's first woman deacon. In 1900, shortly before her death, she became this denomination's second ordained female elder.

Mary Weston Fordham

Mary Weston Fordham (c. 1862-?) may have been born in Charleston, South Carolina, where her only known book was published in 1897: Magnolia Leaves, a collection of sixty-six poems, for which Booker T. Washington wrote an introduction. Except for the names of a handful of relatives (Westons, Byrds, and Fordhams) nothing more is known about Mary Fordham.


Author Biographies by Tonya Bolden

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