Nail, John E.
John E. Nail
Entrepreneur, real estate developer
It was the vision of master businessman and visionary real estate developer John E. Nail that the vitality of middle-class African American communities become commonplace across the United States. Less than a decade after the turn of the twentieth century, Nail, along with his partner Henry G. Parker, opened the realty firm Nail & Parker, Inc. Together, Nail & Parker foresaw the transition of Harlem into a black community and ardently encouraged African Americans to acquire and retain property. Later known as the "Little Fathers" of Harlem, Nail and Parker helped engender a demographical environment in which the Harlem Renaissance, the landmark period of black cultural, literary, and musical expression during the 1920s could take place. Despite the collapse of his firm under the weight of the Depression, Nail remained committed to charitable, political, and benevolent organizations until his death in 1947. While much of his dream for black middle-class home ownership was marginalized for public housing, the usefulness of his vision for and commitment to African American financial empowerment remains relevant in the early 2000s.
Born on August 22, 1883 to John Bennett and Elizabeth Nail in New London, Connecticut, John E. Nail and his sister Grace were reared in New York City. Having migrated from Baltimore in 1863, the elder Nail, who first worked in a gambling house, had become the owner of a tavern that served as a restaurant, hotel, and billiard parlor. As a member of the earliest African American entrepreneurial group that capitalized on Harlem's growth and inflated real estate market, he owned a few rental properties in the community. Inspired by his father's strong business acumen, Nail first worked for his father after he graduated from a New York City public high school. After a stint as a self-employed real estate agent, young Nail began working for the Afro-American Realty Company of Philip A. Payton Jr., one of the most prominent African American owned New York real estate firms of its time.
Philip A. Payton Jr. recognized the economic prospects of a steady flood of African American migrants to the North from the last decade of the 1890s to the 1920s. Shut out from other New York communities open to blacks, the mass migration strained spatial resources as well as race relations. Black Southern migrants soon found themselves relegated to the ever-growing Harlem community. Payton had capitalized on these trends by learning the intricacies of New York City's segregated housing market; Nail did the same.
The Birth of Nail & Parker
Nail left Afro-American Realty in 1907 (it went bankrupt in 1908) after the exposure of its financial and internal difficulties. Parker, his colleague, also resigned. In the same year, the pair co-founded Nail & Parker, their own realty firm. After witnessing Payton's early successes, they undoubtedly learned from his signature business strategy, encouraging black homeownership while acquiring considerable profits.
Parker served as secretary, while Nail, as the firm's president, proved to be its guiding force. Despite its modest beginnings, the company succeeded, soon surpassing that of Payton. With the help of a dynamic advertising campaign, Nail & Parker diversified and expended its services to include mortgages as well as the purchase, selling, appraisal, and management of properties to African Americans.
Nail recognized that African American property ownership offered security as well as the opportunity for blacks to counteract the discriminatory real estate practices of white landlords and banks. He insisted that African Americans acquire property in Harlem and invest in the prospect of a black community there in the future. When an unwritten agreement sought to prevent blacks from renting or owning property on certain blocks of Harlem and attempted to prohibit black firms from controlling its housing market, Nail & Parker fought against the discriminatory measures. Much to its credit, after a difficult battle, the firm successfully dismantled the block.
Early Successes and Growth
By 1911, Nail foresaw the rapid growth of Harlem properties following the shift of Manhattan's population farther north. Together with his pastor, the Reverend Hutchens C. Bishop of St. Phillip's Episcopal Church, Nail designed a real estate venture in which the church purchased several Harlem properties totaling $1,070,000. Not only did the deal secure land for the building of a new edifice, it also provided several apartment buildings for the church to rent. Prominently placed at the center of the lucrative acquisition, Nail & Parker began to negotiate the purchase of more Harlem properties. As the steady departure of whites increased both the market and the demand, Nail continued to urge blacks in the Harlem community to expand their property holdings.
As a leader in the Harlem business community, Nail & Parker served as the agent for the colored YMCA, the Wage Earners' Savings Bank, and the Copeland Realty Company. Madam C. J. Walker was among the firm's most recognizable clients. Having also shared the era's black capitalism spirit, Walker used her fortune to purchase a $200,000 property in Irving-on-Hudson.
In 1916, Nail leveraged his relationship with his brother-in-law James Weldon Johnson, a prominent scholar and activist, to garner his financial support as well as that of his affluent friends. Johnson married Nail's sister, Grace, in 1910. That same year, Nail married Grace Fairfax and though they had no children, both couples vacationed in their Great Barrington, Massachusetts, summer homes.
Nail & Parker as Black Harlem's "Little Fathers"
By 1925, Nail & Parker managed almost fifty apartment complexes and boasted an annual income of $1 million. Its growth continued into 1929, when the firm managed the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, Harlem's largest and most luxurious apartment building. The company's ever-expanding list of wealthy clientele and important institutions earned both Parker and Nail, as black Harlem's "Little Fathers," famed reputations as successful businessmen.
- Born in New London, Connecticut on August 22
- Resigns from Afro-American Realty Company; co-founds Nail & Parker, Inc. with colleague Henry G. Parker
- Marries Grace Fairfax
- Negotiates $1 million real estate venture for St. Phillips Episcopal Church
- Nail & Parker manages almost fifty apartment complexes and boasts an annual income of $1 million
- Firm manages the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, Harlem's largest and most luxurious apartment building
- Nail & Parker, Inc. closes; Nail establishes the John E. Nail Company, Inc.
- Dies in New York on March 6
As the firm's president and most visible personality, Nail particularly enjoyed increased notoriety as one of the most influential black realtors in the city. Because Nail was well respected by both blacks and whites, New York City officials readily called on his expertise as an authority on property accommodation. In addition to being the first African American member of the Real Estate Board of New York and the sole black member of Housing Committee of New York, Nail was also a member of the Harlem Board of Commerce, the Uptown Chamber of Commerce. His achievements were so renown that President Herbert Hoover appointed Nail as a consultant to his Commission on Housing during the Depression.
Concurrently, Nail used his financial and professional successes to serve political, charitable, and racial uplift causes, including the Republican Business Men's Club of New York, the YMCA of which he served as chair of the Finance Committee, the NAACP, and the New York Urban League serving as its vice president. A leader of Harlem's Colored Merchants Association, Nail was also a proponent of Booker T. Washington, leading him to join the self-dubbed Committee of Eight which leveled an effective campaign to discredit black nationalist Marcus Garvey.
Disgruntlement, Financial Woes, and Closure
Nail knew that prestige and power did not prevent criticism. Some tenants believed that they were overcharged and accused Nail of exploiting them as tenants. Because their disgruntlement posed a serious threat to Harlem renters throughout the 1920s and early 1930s who feared a mass exodus of unsatisfied tenants, the firm reluctantly lowered some rents. At the time, Harlem was a bustling and vibrant community of middle-class African Americans who enjoyed both property ownership and entrepreneurship. Nail, in his defense, noted that rentals were high across the city.
Unfortunately, the prosperity of the roaring twenties and the thriving black Harlem community that it helped create was short-lived. A drastic downturn of the U.S. economy in 1929 marked the beginning of the Great Depression. Despite temporarily weathering the period, the future of Nail & Parker, like other realty firms, was uncertain as communities like Harlem deteriorated. Finally collapsing in 1933, Nail and Parker shared forty-five company shares and apportioned its remaining ten shares to their silent white partner Isador D. Brokow.
New Horizons Short-Lived
That same year, Nail established his own firm, the John E. Nail Company, Inc. at 249 W. 135 Street. Nail again served as president and had David B. Peskin, a white real estate agent, serve as secretary and treasurer. The fledging firm's first contact was to lease apartments for the also cash-strapped St. Phillips Church. The deal allowed the church to lease ten six-story apartment houses to Louis B. Lipman for an aggregate rental of $1 million. The following year, Nail tried to secure a multi-million dollar grant from the federal government for New Deal funding to help renovate the degenerating urban community that once thrived as black Harlem. Despite the help of his influential brother-in-law James Weldon Johnson to secure its funding, the plan never came to fruition.
In the coming years, Harlem continued to decline, particularly following a 1943 riot. Incited by the arrest and murder of an African American World War II veteran, a two-day insurgence caused approximately $500,000 to $1 million in property damage, and left hundreds injured and arrested and five dead.
By the time of his death, Nail had lost his dream; Harlem as a middle-class community of black home and business ownership was increasingly displaced by economic despair and aesthetic disrepair. Disillusioned with the failure of the black capitalism dream he first learned as a boy from his father and sharpened during his tutelage under Payton, Nail saw his vision for black economic self-sufficiency replaced by public housing projects throughout Harlem and across the United States.
Nail died in New York City's Lenox Hill Hospital on March 6, 1947. Two days later, his funeral was held at St. Phillips, the church he had so faithfully served throughout his professional life. Nail was survived by his wife Grace, his sister Grace Johnson, his aunt Josephine Miller, and Gertrude Berry, a cousin.
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Feldman, Lynne. B. "Nail, John E." In American National Biography. Vol. 16. Eds. John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Johnson, James Weldon. Along This Way: The Autobiography of James Weldon Johnson. New York: The Viking Press, 1993.
―――――. Black Manhattan. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1930.
Osofsky, Gilbert. Harlem: The Making of a Ghetto. New York: Harper & Row, 1966.
"John E. Nail, Headed Harlem Realty Firm." New York Times, 6 March 1947.
Crystal A. deGregory