Grace Nail Johnson

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Grace Nail Johnson bridal photo in Panama 1910 JWJ MSS 49

Grace Nail Johnson (February 27, 1885 – November 1, 1976) was a civil rights activist and patron of the arts, and wife of writer James Weldon Johnson.

Early life and education[edit]

Grace Elizabeth Nail was born in New London, Connecticut, the daughter of real estate developer John Bennett Nail and his wife, Mary Frances Robinson. Her father was the first life member of the NAACP.[1][2] Her brother was developer John E. Nail.[3] Grace was raised in New York City.[4]


Grace Nail Johnson is usually associated with the Harlem Renaissance. She was a hostess, mentor, and activist on behalf of civil rights causes. She was founder of the NAACP Junior League, organized in 1929.[5] She was the only black member of Heterodoxy, a feminist group based in Greenwich Village.[6][7][8] Nella Larsen recalled traveling with Grace Johnson in the South in 1932, and passing as white patrons at a restaurant in Tennessee, as a "stunt."[9] In 1941, Eleanor Roosevelt invited Mrs. Johnson to the White House along with Mary McLeod Bethune and Numa P. G. Adams, to discuss race relations.[10]

During World War II Mrs. Johnson publicly resigned from a committee of the American Women's Voluntary Services because of racial discrimination in their work projects.[11][12] The following year she spoke on an NBC radio program about equal pay: "We should not have two wage scales for the same job--one for men and one for women, one for Negroes and one for whites."[13]

Personal life[edit]

Grace Nail married James Weldon Johnson on February 3, 1910, at her family's home. The couple lived in Corinto, Nicaragua in the first years of their marriage, before settling back in New York City, in Harlem. They spent summers in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. She was driving and seriously injured in the 1938 automobile accident in Maine that killed her husband.[14][15] Her protegee, Ollie Jewel Sims Okala, was her companion for several decades. Grace died in 1976, age 91.[16] Her ashes were interred along with her husband's, in Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York.[17]


Grace Nail Johnson kept scrapbooks of clippings mentioning her husband and herself and their work. She donated her husband's papers to Yale University, working with Carl Van Vechten to create the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection of American Negro Arts and Letters. Her papers are now also part of that collection.[18]


  1. ^ "John B. Nail Passes Away at Age of 89; Victim of Pneumonia," New York Age (February 21, 1942): 1. via open access publication – free to read
  2. ^ "James B. Nail Dead; Negro Business Man," New York Times (February 15, 1942): 45.
  3. ^ R. Jake Sudderth, "Jack E. Nail," in Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance, Cary D. Wintz and Paul Finkelman, eds. (Taylor & Francis 2004): 855-857. ISBN 1579584578
  4. ^ "Harlem's Grace Nail Johnson, Activist, Arts Patron And Wife Of Writer James Weldon Johnson - Harlem World Magazine". Harlem World Magazine. 2017-07-28. Retrieved 2017-09-05. 
  5. ^ "Junior League Tells History: Mrs. J. W. Johnson is its Founder," New York Amsterdam Star-News (February 8, 1941): 17.
  6. ^ Thadious M. Davis, "Black Women's Modernist Literature," in Maren Tova Linett, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Modernist Women Writers (Cambridge University Press 2010): 100. ISBN 052151505X
  7. ^ Sheila Rowbotham, Dreamers of a New Day: Women Who Invented the Twentieth Century (Verso Books 2011): 44. ISBN 1844677036
  8. ^ Christine Stansell, American Moderns: Bohemian New York and the Creation of a New Century (MacMillan 2001): 67. ISBN 0805067353
  9. ^ Allyson Hobbs, A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life (Harvard University Press 2014). ISBN 9780674368101
  10. ^ "Mrs. Bethune, Friends are Feted by First Lady," Chicago Defender (April 19, 1941): 1.
  11. ^ Grace Nail Johnson, "Local Women Hit A.W.V.S. Resign," New York Amsterdam Star-News (February 28, 1942): 1, 3.
  12. ^ "Mrs. Jas. Weldon Johnson Follows Lead of Mrs. Hope in Resigning from A. W. V. S.," New York Age (February 28, 1942): 1, 7. via open access publication – free to read
  13. ^ "Mrs. James W. Johnson Speaks Urging Job and Pay Equality," New York Amsterdam News (December 18, 1943): 9.
  14. ^ Lillian Johnson, "Johnson's Death Car Total Wreck," Afro-American (July 16, 1938): 3.
  15. ^ "Funeral of James W. Johnson Thursday," New York Amsterdam Star-News (July 2, 1938): 1.
  16. ^ "Grace N. Johnson, Widow of Black Leader," Berkshire Eagle (November 3, 1976): 21. via open access publication – free to read
  17. ^ Ellen Tarry, "Grace Nail Johnson: A Remembrance," The Crisis (March 1977): 120-121.
  18. ^ Finding aid, James Weldon Johnson and Grace Nail Johnson Papers, Yale University.