Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson’s Suffrage Work: The View from Her Scrapbook
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Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson’s Suffrage Work
The View from Her Scrapbook

Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson left a record of her experiences as a paid activist and organizer in the women’s suffrage movement of the 1910s not in a diary, stories, or published writing, but in a scrapbook (Dunbar-Nelson, Scrapbook No. 3).1 She kept this book for five months in the summer and fall of 1915 as she traveled and spoke throughout Pennsylvania, working in a statewide campaign to pass a suffrage resolution. She often spoke several times a day, sometimes to groups of a thousand, sometimes all black, sometimes mixed. The questions we ask of this unique record of one black woman’s relationship to the suffrage movement bring multiple aspects of Dunbar-Nelson’s work into focus. Nearly every item in it can be unpacked to reveal information and insights about Dunbar-Nelson, the suffrage struggle, and the period. As a scrapbook, it stands at the crossroads of the scrapbook-making practices of African Americans—mainly men—who collected materials on black history, including voting and its suppression, and of white women suffrage campaigners who often made scrapbooks documenting their own work in the movement and shaped stories about their activities for their families and beyond. It also draws on widespread nineteenth-century scrapbook-making practices. Additionally, the materials within the scrapbook offer fragments of Dunbar-Nelson’s otherwise unrecorded speeches. They offer insights into the relationships between her speeches and the more general women’s suffrage ideology of the period, and into her understandings of women’s suffrage in the context of the needs of the black community. The complex picture of her beliefs and methods that emerges shows her as an indefatigable campaigner, thinking strategically and deploying every means she had to spread a broad interpretation of women’s suffrage as linked to the needs of the black community.

This scrapbook tracks a rough chronology of her work as a speaker and [End Page 310] campaigner during a period for which she left no extant diary. It is significantly different from a diary in that it is written using the words of others, via newspaper clippings about her speeches, articles interviewing or quoting her, flyers, and other printed ephemera. It contains no personal notes or invitations, nor train tickets for her travels through Pennsylvania.2 There are no receipts for her expenses on the road. There are no movie or theater tickets, although she was an avid moviegoer. It does not even contain her own copies of her speeches. These absences mark its boundaries: it is about Dunbar-Nelson but is not a collection of personal memorabilia. It tells the story of how she presented herself and was received as a public figure. It shows her constructing her appeal to her audiences as a black suffrage activist, both in the sense of shaping her argument and in making herself an attractive subject for publicity. Reading over her shoulder, we see her seeing herself as others saw her, as she collected and organized what was written about her.

The choices she made in constructing her scrapbook are part of the story it tells, even in her choice of book to use. Municipal housekeeping, or housekeeping of the community, was a familiar metaphor for suffragists and Progressive Era reformers, who argued that women were especially suited to address issues such as health and housing because they already managed these elements of family life. The power of the vote would simply be an extension of their accepted role.3 Dunbar-Nelson’s suffrage scrapbook concretely engaged this trope. Like many nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century scrapbook makers, she pasted her collection of articles into a preexisting book. Many people reused outdated school books or filled-up, discarded business ledgers for the purpose. Her collection, however, was pasted into a household account book. Some printed column heads are visible—“Household and Kitchen Furniture,” “Laundry,” “Groceries,” and the printed partial date “191_,” ready for the user to fill in the final digit—but no handwriting protrudes from beneath, suggesting it was never used for its original purpose. It was manufactured too late to have...