Overlooked No Longer

A collaborative digital humanities project focuses on making visible the work of Black women writers to a new generation

By Megan Walsh-Boyle

Alice Dunbar-Nelson in a 1915 sepia-toned photograph
American poet, journalist and political activist Alice Dunbar-Nelson in a 1915 photograph by Addison Scurlock and a typescript copy of her short story “His Heart’s Desire” Photos: Courtesy of University of Delaware Library, Museums, and Press, Special Collections & Museums

A prolific and thought-provoking author, activist and educator, Alice Dunbar-Nelson (1875–1935) influenced some of the most celebrated writers of the Harlem Renaissance—and yet, her works don’t appear on many K–12 school reading lists.

Jean Lutes, PhD, is working with a dedicated group of scholars to change that. “Dunbar-Nelson is part of a long tradition of Black activists and intellectuals who have been advocating for racial justice for generations,” says Dr. Lutes, the Luckow Family Endowed Chair in English Literature and professor of English.

For the past two years, Dr. Lutes has been working to recover a lost short story collection by the iconic writer who tackled complex themes like gender, race and ethnicity in poety, essays and fiction.

“These extraordinary stories are based on Dunbar-Nelson’s work teaching Black kindergarteners, but they never got their proper recognition,” Dr. Lutes recalls. “I was really excited by one short story called ‘His Heart’s Desire’ about a boy who wants a doll.”

Being part of a project that rightfully puts Black literature in the forefront is incredibly rewarding.

Adrianna Ogando ’23 CLAS

Whether I am compiling documents, online resources or creating historical timelines, I am inspired by the direct impact we’re having on the teachers of the Philadelphia school district with whom we collaborate.

Cynthia Choo ’23 CLAS

Bringing these neglected stories the attention they deserves a labor-intensive and painstaking process. That’s why Dr. Lutes enlisted the help of several Villanova undergraduate and graduate students, as well as the expertise of Denise Burgher, a senior team leader at the Center for Black Digital Research at Penn State University, and Brigitte Fielder, PhD, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. They secured funding through Villanova’s Idol Family Fellows Program and the Anne Welsh McNulty Institue for Women’s Leadership, with the goal of producing a widely accessible digital edition of the short story collection and partnering with the School District of Philadelphia, which has a majority population of Black students, to bring Dunbar-Nelson’s work to classrooms.

Their efforts have evolved to include a dynamic digital humanities project titled, Taught by Literature: Recentering Black Women Intellectuals, focused on public outreach and recovering underrepresented voices. In response to feedback from teachers, the project expanded beyond Dunbar-Nelson to include other women authors like Phillis Wheatley and Harriet Jacobs.

In deference to Dunbar-Nelson’s long career as an educator—she taught from the age of 17 to 56 at the elementary, secondary and college levels—they have created curriculum resources that would be “scalable, relevant and adaptable” to multiple K-12 school systems.

Did You Know?

A series of short videos featuring Black women educators reading works by early Black women is being filmed under the direction of Student Academy Award winner T. Caleb Lucky ’20 CLAS and Assistant Professor of Communication Hezekiah Lewis, MFA, ’99 CLAS, ’02 MA.

These videos will be made available as part of an open-access digital collection on the American Antiquarian Society website, which will also make Dunbar-Nelson’s short stories available to read online.


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