Biographical Database of Black Woman Suffragists

Biography of Roberta J. Dunbar, 1868-1956

By Michelle M. Valletta, Public Historian and History Instructor, Rhode Island College, Providence, RI and Roger Williams University, Bristol, RI and Elisa Miller, Associate Professor, Rhode Island College.

African American Women's Club officer, Republican Party Activist, Education Administrator, Peace Activist.

Roberta (sometimes referred to as Reberta, Bertha) Johnson Dunbar was born on July 19, 1868 in Narragansett, Rhode Island to John Daniel Dunbar and Louisa Cartwright Dunbar. Her parents had recently moved to Rhode Island from their hometown of Washington, D.C. Her mother was a homemaker and her father, who was related to the author Paul Lawrence Dunbar, worked as a plumber and bartender. By 1870, the family moved to Providence, RI where she graduated from English High School, now known as Central High School. As an adult, Dunbar remained unmarried and never had children. She spent the rest of her life in Rhode Island, with the exception of several months teaching in Berryville, Virginia as a young woman. Besides her activism and public service, Dunbar worked at various times as a dressmaker, masseuse, manicurist and hairdresser. During her long life, Roberta J. Dunbar established herself as a prominent and dedicated activist who worked to make society more democratic and equitable for African Americans, particularly for women and children of color.

A large foundation for Dunbar's life and activism was her Christian faith. Throughout her life, she was an active member of Providence's Pond Street Baptist Church, previously known as the Second Freewill Baptist Church, where she taught Sunday school and worked as the church's clerk. In addition to her church work, Dunbar became involved in voluntarism, mostly in causes related to the African American community. By the end of the nineteenth century, Dunbar had joined Providence's African American elite ranks, most likely through her association with the Pond Street Baptist Church, a church known for its history of attracting affluent and high-profile Black members. Dunbar's network included Mary Elizabeth Jackson, a prominent Black suffragist, clubwoman, founding member of the Rhode Island National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and leader in the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA), and John Hope, a scholar and civil rights activist. Dunbar and Jackson met Hope while he attended Brown University and they founded an African-American literary group called the Enquirers. The Enquirers gathered in a salon-like settings to read literature and dress in costume, but also to discuss racial issues such as employment opportunities for African Americans in Rhode Island.

Dunbar became a leading member of the Black women's club movement in Rhode Island and New England. Her contemporaries often noted her small stature, but her contributions were large and addressed local, national, and even international issues. In 1906, The Providence Journal referred to her as “one of the best-known Afro-American club women in New England.” Initially she helped establish a Black women's club in Pawtucket, Rhode Island called the F.E. Harper Club. By 1899, she merged the small club with the Northeast Federation of Colored Women's Clubs, a much larger organization affiliated with the National Association of Colored Women (NACW). In the Federation, Dunbar assumed numerous leadership positions, starting in her first year of membership in 1899 when she became its secretary. She served as its president from 1902 to 1905, and then again in the 1930s, and as chair of its executive board at various points over several decades. Dunbar stepped down as president in 1905 in order to devote more time to active recruiting and publicizing for the organization. For ten years, she served as organizer for the Federation, making annual trips throughout New England and the Middle Atlantic states. In a ten-year period of organizing, she was reported to have helped recruit 85 new branches and 3,000 new members for the NACW. The Northeastern, the organization's publication paid tribute to Dunbar in 1909 as “our active, intelligent, and resourceful organizer.”

In addition to her regional work, Dunbar developed a national profile as a clubwoman. She became recording secretary for the national NACW from 1912-1917, serving officers who included Mary Church Terrell and Mrs. Booker T. Washington. She also remained active in the Rhode Island club movement, as a frequent president of the Rhode Island Union of Colored Women's Clubs, sometimes known as the Rhode Island Federation of Colored Women's Clubs, or the Rhode Island Association of Colored Women's Clubs.

Dunbar's ideas about the role of Black women in society echoed the NACW mission of racial uplift and “the politics of respectability.” She believed that Black women had a critical role to play politically, socially, and culturally in the African American community and American society as a whole. Much like the NACW, she viewed the home, and Black women's role in the home as religious, moral, and nurturing leaders, as the key to improving conditions for African Americans. In 1903 Dunbar gave a speech where explained:

it is our glorious privilege to foster the home life and so train the children that from those homes go sturdy, intelligent American citizens. No race has risen to any greatness that has neglected the home life. It is the cornerstone of its prosperity. To be true, pure and noble and have race pride should be the aim of every woman.

Although she believed that women had special abilities and responsibilities for racial uplift, in that same speech she also criticized African American men not doing their part for the race, accusing them of “lethargy” and “not helping to make good citizens of the rising generation of Afro-Americans.”

Dunbar's interest in inspiring and protecting Black women also led her to get involved with working girls' clubs, a national movement where middle- and upper-class women provided working-class women moral, domestic, and employment training, and wholesome social activities to counter the perceived dangers of industrialization and urbanization. Dunbar noted that most of the working girls' clubs in the country catered to immigrant girls and women and there were limited opportunities for African American women. She became president of the Woman's New Century Club in Providence in 1906 and explained the club's goal was “to help our girls in their growth to true womanhood.” In addition to the typical activities of a working girls' club, the New Century Club also opened a home for young Black women that provided temporary housing to help working women avoid housing that was might be morally questionable or financially ruinous. Dunbar was also interested in providing similar racial uplift opportunities for young Black men and she was a co-founder and the only female member of the Marathon Club, that provided social activities, athletics events, and academic scholarships for its male members.

Dunbar's activism was aimed at ending racism and ameliorating conditions for African Americans. In a 1907 speech to white clubwomen, Dunbar explained that African Americans “do not want charity but that those of our people who are educated and competent shall be given a chance, and that all doors shall not be closed against them.” She worked to end segregation and confronted the issues of lynching and mob violence against African Americans. She spoke about economic and educational issues that challenged the African-American community as well as social issues such as child labor and temperance. Dunbar was a founding member of the Providence branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1913, served as its first secretary and later as its treasurer for twenty years.

During the early 1900s, lynching and racial violence against African Americans was a contentious topic in American society. In 1903, New York preacher Dr. Charles H. Parkhurst and Georgia newspaper editor John Temple Graves delivered strong pro-lynching statements in the press. In 1904, the Dorcas Home Mission Society in Brooklyn invited Ida B. Wells and Dunbar as honored guest speakers. In her address to the organization, Dunbar responded directly to the community's frustration about lynching and racism. She stated:

At this time, when it seems that every man's hand is against us, I thought that we might well stop finding fault a little while and grasp the opportunities to do something. We have opportunities to read books of public libraries, opportunity to play the part of true mothers, to set examples for our children, opportunities to be efficient and patient in domestic service and an opportunity to live so as to erase impressions made by speeches of Dr. Parkhurst, John Temple Graves and men of their stamp who are prejudiced to our people. There is a brighter day for us in the near future. The 1457 women of the Northeastern Federation are grasping these opportunities. In order to have noble manhood we must have true womanhood. Let us not forget our motto, “For God and Humanity.”

Dunbar's words encouraged the audience to focus on more positive issues, and what they could control, and not get discouraged by the rampant racism of individuals such as Parkhurst and Graves. Her message typified the racial uplift philosophies of the NACW and Booker T. Washington that if African Americans worked on improving themselves and their communities that racism would decline.

Dunbar believed that education was a key to the empowerment of African Americans in American society and both the New Century Club and the Marathon Club sought to provide educational opportunities to young African American women and men. As with the NACW and Booker T. Washington, she believed that vocational industrial education was important for African Americans. However, she argued that while young Black girls should be taught conventional domestic skills, they should also be educated in mathematics and science. Educational reformers in Rhode Island recognized her dedication and capabilities regarding education and youth development. In 1910, the administrators of the Watchman Industrial School in Providence, Rhode Island appointed her principal of the school. The school provided academic and vocational instruction to African American youth.

As an educational administrator, Dunbar supported the desegregation of American schools. In a speech at a 1923 NACW conference, she explained:

Colored boys and girls must become acquainted with other American boys and girls and the best way to form acquaintance and friendly relations between the races is to mingle freely in such democratic institutions as the public schools. Mutual respect and tolerance is obtained through competition in scholastic and athletic events. Those who do not care to live as free Americans will, of course, stay where un-American conditions prevail.

In this speech, Dunbar made the case that integrated education was critical to ending racism in American society and that African American teachers should be hired in all schools, not just Black ones. Opponents of integration in the South highlighted Dunbar's speech as evidence that African American activists were trying to “enforce social equality” of the races.

Dunbar cared deeply about civil rights and American democracy. There is little direct evidence of her support or activism for the woman suffrage movement. However, there is much circumstantial evidence to assume that she favored it. She spoke passionately about the special skills and duties that Black women had to represent and protect the interests of African American families and communities. She was a leader in local, region, and national Black women's clubs at a time when they were actively working for woman suffrage. She was colleagues and friends with leading suffragists in Rhode Island such as Mary E. Jackson, a Black suffrage leader, and Sara M. Algeo, a white suffrage leader, and participated in the Rhode Island Civic Forum with many prominent white suffragists in the 1910s. She also became highly involved in the League of Women Voters, an organization that emerged out of the Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Party and was designed to increase women's civic involvement after the suffrage victory.

Dunbar was an original member of the Providence League of Women's Voters when it began in 1919 and served in many leadership positions over the next several decades. She led a series of citizenship classes for the organization in the 1920s, served as its treasurer, secretary, and chair of the education and membership committee at various points, and led a campaign to abolish property qualifications for voters. She also gave speeches on civic issues on behalf of the organization such as a 1924 on “The laws of RI as they affect women and children.” In addition to the League of Women Voters, Dunbar partnered with white women activists in organizations such as the Rhode Island Council of Women. She joined the Rhode Island National Woman's Party when it was founded in 1923 to work for legal equality for women beyond suffrage.

Like many other white and African American suffragists, Dunbar also became active in political parties after the ratification of woman suffrage. She became a leader in both Black and interracial Republican organizations in Rhode Island. For over forty years, Dunbar was an active member of the Julia Ward Howe Republican Club for African American women, serving a term as its president. Starting in the 1920s, she also was a treasurer and national convention delegate for the Ladies of the Grand Army of the Republic organization. During her life, she was a strong supporter of the Republican Party but she also was willing to criticize the party when she thought it was wrong on racial issues. She criticized Republicans when some members of the party refused to march with Black soldiers in a 1904 Boston parade. As a Republican Party supporter, Dunbar continued her belief in the special role of women in American democracy. In 1933, she gave a speech to a Republican women's club about the increase in juvenile crime and a perceived breaking down of parental authority. Dunbar told the audience that “We must meet this challenge by education, respect for the constitution, and as women by learning the laws by which we are governed.”

As an older woman, Dunbar continued in high-profile public service roles. During the Great Depression, Mary Mcleod Bethune, Director of the National Youth Administration (NYA) Division of Negro Affairs under the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration, appointed Dunbar to serve as the Rhode Island State Supervisor of the NYA Division of Negro Affairs. One of Dunbar's task was to ensure African American young people benefitted from NYA funds and programs -- a key objective of the State Supervisor. This position reflected Dunbar's long-time commitment to helping Black young people.

In the late 1930s, as international relations worsened and World War II approached, Dunbar developed an interest in peace activism. She served as chair of the Peace Department for the NACW in 1937 and gave a speech where she stated:

Peace...seems to be the main topic of the day... The women of the national [Association of Colored Women] like the women all over the world are the mothers, wives, sisters, and relatives of the human fodder which feeds the god of war. If you could see into the hearts of the women of China, Africa, Japan, Germany, Italy, England, and India they want Peace, for they are the helpless sufferers when the dogs of war are turned loose. We women want PEACE, and no woman of nation is in a better position to bring this Era than the women of America. First we must have a united womanhood in this country, who in turn will united with the women of the world, presenting an International front in this great battle for Peace.

In this speech, Dunbar continued a theme that was consistent throughout her life, that women are different from men and as a result bring new talents and perspectives to national and international politics and society. When the United States joined World War II, Dunbar continued her racial activism, in line with the broader “Double V” civil rights campaign by African Americans during the war. At a NAACP event in 1944, she criticized the Roosevelt administration and urged the audience to use their vote carefully. She told them that “the present prosperity [for African Americans] was due to the war and not to any special effort on the part of the present administration.” The Providence Journal reported that Dunbar spoke “of the sacrifices colored soldiers were making on the battlefronts [and] she asked that all on the home front see that the rights they were fighting for were protected.” Towards the end of the war, she gave a public speech on “The Negro after the War.”

Dunbar remained active in the community well into her eighties. In 1939, she was a co-founder of the John Hope Community Association in Providence, later renamed the John Hope Settlement House, an African American community center focused on political, social, and cultural activities. Governor William H. Vanderbilt appointed Dunbar to the State Commission on the Employment Problems of the Negro that produced a 1941 report on racism in employment opportunities. Dunbar was appointed to serve as the state delegate at the NACW national convention in Atlantic City in 1950 at the age of 82. In 1952, at the Rhode Island Baptist Convention, she was elected chairman of the missions and stewardship committee. In February 1954, she was an honored guest at the fortieth anniversary of the Massachusetts Union of Women's Clubs celebration in Boston.

For more than sixty years, Dunbar dedicated her life to gender and racial inequalities in Rhode Island and across the country. She lived through Reconstruction, the Gilded Age, Progressive Era, two world wars, and the Great Depression. As the modern Civil Rights Movement accelerated in the 1950s, Dunbar's mission came to a close in 1956. At age 88, she died at the Home for Aged Colored People, her funeral services were held at the Bell Funeral Home, Providence and she was buried at the North Burial Ground, Providence, RI. A family friend of Dunbar's noted that “She was passionate about history. She used to have boxes and boxes of papers and documents.” Dunbar served as historian of the Rhode Island Ladies of the Grand Army and was active in the National Committee for the Preservation of the Frederick Douglass Home. It is only right that Dunbar's own accomplishments for African American and American history are also remembered.


“Miss R.J. Dunbar,” The Crisis 13, No. 4 (February 1917), 174.


Roberta Dunbar, Convention of Colored Women's Clubs, ca. early 1920's
Courtesy, Rhode Island Black Heritage Society


“Next Meeting of Northeast Federation of Women's Clubs at Providence,” The Boston Globe, Aug 11, 1899.

“Federation of Women's Clubs Opens Convention Here,” The Evening Telegraph (Providence, RI), August 9, 1900.

“Northeastern Federation of Women's Clubs,” The Standard Union (Brooklyn, NY), January 30, 1903.

“Colored Women Meet Miss Dunbar,” The Brooklyn Times Union, January 30, 1903.

“Women's Clubs, Local and Other,” The Providence Sunday Journal, August 16, 1903.

“Miss Dunbar Points out the opportunities at this time,” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, March 4, 1904.

“Color Question Up,” The Boston Globe, August 12, 1904.

“Woman Are Active,” The New York Age, March 16, 1905.

“Women Ask for Trades,” The New York Age, August 23, 1906.

“With the Club Women,” The Providence Sunday Journal, August 26, 1906.

“The Week in Club Circles,” The Providence Sunday Journal, October 27, 1907.

“Colored Club Women, Representatives of the Twenty Thousand Club Women,” The New-York Daily Tribune, Aug 25, 1908.

“With Club Women,” The Providence Sunday Journal, August 30, 1908.

“Women's Clubs,” The Providence Sunday Journal, December 26, 1909.

“The Negro Program,” The Providence Tribune, December 10, 1910.

“Providence Mothers' Club,” The Providence Sunday Journal, January 19, 1913.

“Miss R.J. Dunbar,” The Crisis 13, No. 4 (February 1917), 174.

“Civic Forum Ends Season's Sessions,” The Providence Journal, March 12, 1917.

“Mrs. Algeo Heads Suffrage League,” The Providence Journal, November 21, 1919.

“Women's Club; New Century Club,” The Providence Journal, April 20, 1919.

“Women Voters ask for many Reforms,” The Providence Journal, November 19, 1922.

“League Urges Abolishing Property Qualification," The Providence Journal, February 8, 1922.

“Free Citizenship Courses,” The Providence Journal, January 28, 1923.

"No ‘Nigger Equality' Eh?” The Yellow Jacket (Moravian Falls, NC), October 1, 1924.

“Women of East Convene in Parley Here,” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, August 19, 1931.

“In Memorandum,” The Providence Journal, October 3, 1934.

“Conference Held on Race Relations; Miss Reberta Dunbar Speaks on Negro's Place in State,” The Providence Journal, February 5, 1938.

“Rhode Island Federal holds Three Day Session,” The Afro American, August 10, 1940.

“G.A.R. Ladies Elect,” The Providence Journal, May 11, 1940.

“District Society to Meet Thursday,” The Providence Journal, March 12, 1944.

“More Close Cooperation between Members of Colored Race Urged,” The Providence Journal, December 18, 1944.

“Women's League names state delegate,” The Newport Mercury, May 26, 1950.

“Union observes 40th birthday,” The Afro American, February 6, 1954.

“Roberta Dunbar Obituary,” The Providence Journal, November 3, 1956.

“What the Branches are Doing,” The Crisis 65, No. 10 (December 1958), 635.

"Black Women Then & Now, Part III,” The Providence Journal, March 20, 1997.

Acts and Resolutions Passed by the General Assembly (Providence, RI: E.L. Freeman Co, 1914), 591.

Frank Lincoln Mather, Who's Who of the Colored Race: A General Biographical Dictionary of Men and Women of African Descent: Volume One (Chicago, 1915), 96.

Rhode Island. Report of Commissioner of Labor Made to the General Assembly for the Year, (Providence: Oxford Press, 1919), 404.

Sara MacCormack Algeo, The Story of a Sub-pioneer (Providence, R.I.: Snow & Farnham Company, 1925), 280.

Ruthe Winegarten. Black Texas Women: A Sourcebook: Documents, Biographies, Timeline (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996), 140.

LaVonne Leslie, ed. The History of the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs, Inc.: A Legacy of Service (LaVonne Leslie, 2012).

J. A. Hanson, Mary Mcleod Bethune and Black Women's Political Activism (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2003), 140-141.

Ariana Alicea and Sandra Enos, “Watchman, what of the night?: Watchman Industrial School,” Rhodetour, Accessed June 10, 2019.

Joseph LeCount, "From Immigrant to Ethnic: Interview with Joseph LeCount by Joseph Conforti" (1976), 1., accessed June 5, 2019.

John Hope Settlement House,, accessed June 10, 2019.

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