Roberta Dunbar was born in Narragansett, Rhode Island on July 10, 1868 to John and Louisa Cartwright Dunbar. By 1870 the family was living in Providence and Roberta attended the English High school. She worked in a number of professions including dressmaker, masseuse and hairdresser but her work of note was as an activist dedicated to the advancement of African Americans and woman suffrage.
She was a leading member within the Black women’s club movement. She was a founder of the F.E. Harper Club of Pawtucket and was instrumental in merging this club with the Northeast Federation of Women’s Clubs In this federation she served in a number of capacities including secretary in 1899 and from 1902 until 1905 as president. She would once again serve as president in the 1930s. Affiliated with the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs she worked tirelessly, and it was said helped recruit eighty-five new branches and 3,000 new members.
As a member of the Second Freewill Baptist Church (later Pond Street Baptist) she along with Mary Elizabeth Jackson, a Black suffragist and fellow club-woman, and Brown University student John Hope, future president of Morehouse College, helped in the formation of the Enquirers, a literary club for members of color.
In addition to being a local, regional and national leader in Black women’s clubs she was an active women’s suffragist and a member of the Providence League of Women Voters when it formed in 1919 as well as a member of the Rhode Island National Women’s Party when formed in 1923. A staunch Republican she was a member of the Julia Ward Howe Republican Club. Committed to public service she was appointed to serve on the National Youth Administration’s Division of Negro Affairs as the Rhode Island State Supervisor during the 1930s.
In the late 1930s, as a second world war loomed, Roberta served as chairwoman of the Peace Department for the National Association of Colored Women. In 1939 she was a co-founder of the John Hope Settlement Community Association of Providence. During the 1940s and early 1950s she would continue to serve on community, church and state commissions and committees. When eight-four years old in 1952 she chaired the committee on missions and stewardship at the Rhode Island Baptist Convention.
Roberta never married but she left a lasting legacy for the betterment of all. She died in 1956 and is buried at the North Burial Ground in Providence.
Russell J. DeSimone