Dumas' grandfather was the Marquis Alexandre-Antoine Davy de la Pailleterie (1714-1786), who was the French Général Commissaire in the Artillery in the colony of Saint-Domingue (later Haïti), and his wife, Marie-Césette Dumas (d 1772) who had originally been enslaved but later managed her husbands' estate in Jérémie. Their son, Thomas-Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie (1762-1806), returned to France in 1776 joined the army in 1786 and in 1793 became a general in the armies of the revolution. His name appears on the south wall of the Arc de Triomphe. Upon joining the army he took his mother's surname and became Thomas-Alexandre Dumas (from "du Mas" meaning "of the farm"). He married Marie-Louise Elizabeth Labouret from Villers-Cotterêts, Aisne in 1792. In July 1802 a pregnant Marie-Louise saw a puppet show that included a black devil named Berlick and, on account of her husband's mother's race, she became concerned that she would 'give birth to a Berlick' and 'be ruined'. When Alexandre Dumas was born on 24 July 1802 (appearing as 'Dumas Davy de la Pailleterie' on his birth certificate) he had fair skin and hair.
Dumas moved to Paris in 1822, where he worked as a journalist and began writing plays. In 1829, his first play 'Henri III et sa Cour' was successfully performed. Dumas' subsequent plays met with similar success and he was soon financially able to write full-time. In 1838 he re-wrote his play 'Paul le Corsaire' as the serialised novel 'Le Capitaine Paul' and this began Dumas' career as a novelist, which would go on to include 'Les Trois Mousquetaires' (1844), 'Le Chevalier de Maison-Rouge' (1845), 'La Reine Margot' (1845) and 'Le Comte de Monte-Cristo' (1846). Dumas worked largely in collaboration (most notably with Auguste Maquet) and he made much use of assistants. His 'Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine', a cookbook, was published posthumously in 1873.
In adulthood Dumas' appearance clearly indicated that he was of Black descent and at the height of his success his racial origins were widely commented on. Dumas' patron Monsieur Nodier, referring to the authors' notoriously liberal spending and the extravagance of his wardrobe, said 'Ah, Dumas, my poor fellow, what a lot of baubles! Will you Negroes always be the same and forever be delighted by glass beads and corals?' In the 1840s Jacquot, a journalist who Dumas had rebuffed, attacked him overtly racist terms which called Dumas 'a savage', implied that he was incapable of writing much of his own work and that it had been written by Dumas' collaborators and assistants. Jacquot was imprisoned for libel. However, ethnicity plays a very small part in Dumas' writing but his 1843 novel Georges is set on Mauritius and deals directly with plantation life and racism.
Dumas married the actress Ida Ferrier (1811-1859) on 1 February 1840. But he also fathered at least four illegitimate children (including Alexandre Dumas, fils (1824-1895). Between 1851 and 1864 Dumas left France, partly on account of Napoleon III taking the throne and also on account of his creditors, and he travelled through Belgium, Russia and Italy before returning to Paris. Dumas died of a stroke on 5 December 1870 at Puys, near Dieppe and was buried at Villers-Cotterêts. In November 2002 he was translated to the Panthéon in Paris, at this ceremony the French president, Jacques Chirac, spoke of the racism towards Dumas for which his reburial was an atonement.