Last week, we featured John E. Nail, so now we keep it in the family with a profile of his sister, Grace, whose life is no less remarkable than that of her brother and her father. She was born on February 27, 1885, in New London, Conn., and her parents were prominent business and civil rights activists, most notably John B. Nail.

The child of an enormously successful family, Grace’s renown was extended through her involvement in cultural affairs during the Harlem Renaissance, as well as her marriage to James Weldon Johnson. To list just a portion of the organizations and institutions would exhaust the parameters of this article, but her commitment to the NAACP and several feminist groups cannot be excluded.

In 1904, more than a decade or so before the Harlem Renaissance gained momentum, she met Johnson, one of the progenitors of the movement, who was visiting New York. They met at a theatrical production, confirming their similar proclivities in art and culture. It took awhile before their relationship solidified, mainly through correspondence while Johnson was U.S. Consul to Venezuela and later Nicaragua. Their engagement occurred five years later and they were married on February 3, 1910, at the family’s home in Brooklyn.

They spent the first years of their marriage in Corinto, Nicaragua, and Grace adapted well to their diplomatic life, in the process studying Spanish and French. In 1912, she traveled to New York to oversee her husband’s writings. Although it’s merely speculation, she may have been spirited away to protect her from the revolution that was brewing in the nation. Even before the possibility of revolt, Johnson had grown weary of the tropics and, on several occasions, requested a transfer, one that was finally granted in 1912, which permitted him to rejoin Grace in the States.

After James left consulate work, the Johnsons next lived in Jacksonville, Fla., where he managed a theater, and even tried his hand at writing screenplays. One of them was so disgusting to him that it ended his interest in the pursuit. Grace was ready to leave long before, having about as much as she could digest of the Southern experience. By 1914, they were back in New York, according to Eugene Levy’s biography of Johnson.

They returned to Manhattan just as the Harlem Renaissance was sprouting, and Grace, with her usual flair and congeniality, immersed herself in a variety of social affairs, hosting one cultural event after another. She was often proclaimed “the hostess with the mostest” and was invited to head several events sponsored by the NAACP, Heterodoxy Club (its only African American member), Anti-Lynching Crusaders, and Circle of Negro Relief. In 1929, after the Renaissance was no longer booming, she founded the NAACP’s Junior League.

In 1932, she toured the South with author Nella Larsen, which was her toe in the water that led to her deep involvement in promoting children’s literature, mostly in association with the poet Langston Hughes. Her fame and acclaim were influential in local and national political circles, so much so that First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt often included her in White House discussions, along with other notables such as educator Mary McLeod Bethune.

Six years later, when they were driving to their summer home in Great Barrington, Mass., Levy wrote, “The weather was threatening and Grace soon found herself driving through a blinding rainstorm....[As they were driving] across an unguarded railroad crossing, a speeding train bore down on them…Johnson was fatally injured, dying a few minutes after being freed from the wreckage. Grace survived, was seriously injured, and was destined to spend many weeks in the hospital.”

It was often rumored that light-complexioned Grace could have passed for white and possibly did in the company of her cousin Frances Cohen, recalled Sondra Kathryn Wilson in her book “Meet Me at the Theresa.” She and Mrs. Johnson looked like sisters rather than cousins. People in the hotel [Theresa] knew that Mrs. Cohen was passing as white. She and Mrs. Johnson became reacquainted after her husband died...Around the Theresa, folks used to say that once Mrs. Johnson got on that Fifth Avenue bus to head downtown, when the bus hit 110 Street, she didn’t speak to any Black people from Harlem.” This attitude must have changed once she took up residence in the Lenox Terrace complex.

Wilson concluded that it was from her apartment in Lenox Terrace: “She spent the remainder of her life perpetuating the legacy of her husband...She died at her home in Harlem on November 1, 1976, at the age of 91.” She is buried in Greenwood Cemetery in New York City.

Find out more

As noted above, Sondra Kathryn Wilson is a good resource and Ellen Tarry’s obit in the NAACP’s The Crisis is informative.


More could have been said about Grace Nail Johnson’s early years and it may be found in the many books about the Johnsons in Harlem.

Place in context

Grace Nail Johnson lived through the exciting and memorable Harlem Renaissance and the Civil Rights Movement, where she was more than a witness.

This week in Black history

July 7, 1972: Basketball legend Lisa Leslie was born in Inglewood, Calif.

July 8, 1914: Vocalist and musician Billy Eckstine was born in Pittsburgh, Pa. He died in 1993.

July 10, 1943: Tennis immortal Arthur Ashe was born in Richmond, Va. He died in 1993.

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