His parents, Elizabeth and John B. Nail moved to New York City where the senior Nail bought a hotel, restaurant, and billiard parlor after working for a time in a gambling house.His sister was Grace Nail Johnson, wife of James Weldon Johnson.
His entrepreneurial endeavors made an early impression on John as he was growing up.
John Nail graduated from a New York public high school and worked briefly in his father’s hotel. In 1904 he began working as a salesman at the Afro-American Realty Company, a firm headed by Philip A. Payton and based in Harlem. The Afro-American Realty Company, anticipating the migration of African Americans from central Manhattan to Harlem, encouraged black homeowners and business owners to relocate in the area. Nail, through the Afro-American Realty Company, also helped unite black renters and white landlords and aided a number of the earliest black residents of Harlem in finding new homes in the area.
Payton’s Afro-American Realty’s vision of the move uptown proved premature. As the company began to experience financial difficulties in 1907, Nail and another company salesman, Henry C. Parker, opened up their own realty business in Harlem, Nail and Parker Associates. They also anticipated the migration of Manhattan blacks farther north and in 1911 Nail began advising middle-class black New Yorkers to purchase property in Harlem. Nail also argued that black ownership in Harlem would permanently undermine discriminatory real estate practices commonly directed against both African American homeowners and renters.
In 1911, Nail and his pastor, Rev. Hutchens C. Bishop of St. Philips Episcopal Church, made a series of real estate purchases in Harlem totaling $1,070,000. These deals, helped by Bishop’s ability to pass for white, allowed land for a new church and for church-owned apartment buildings that would be rented out to tenants. As blacks increasingly moved into Harlem after 1915, Nail and his associates purchased more property. Despite the emphasis on home purchases, Nail soon realized that most new black Harlemites were hungry for, and could only afford, apartments.
In 1917, he helped organize “The Negro Silent Protest Parade,” formed By Harlem’s St. Philip’s Church, in 1917.
John Nail became the wealthiest and most influential black realtor in New York City. He held seats on numerous state and local boards, including the Real Estate Board of New York and the Housing Committee of New York where he was the only black member in each case. His advice was solicited by President Herbert Hoover’s Commission on Housing. Nail also contributed to the Harlem community through charities, political influence, and organizations aimed at uplifting the community including the New York branches of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the National Urban League.
John Nail envisioned Harlem as the new capital of the black middle class, an idea that seemed likely in the 1920s. By 1925, Nail and Associates owned and managed around fifty apartment complexes and had an annual income of $1 million.
They also helped to develop Harlem by funding the Harlem branch of the YMCA, helping small businesses in the area, and building up Harlem’s local bank. When the depression hit Harlem, Nail and Parker Associates went bankrupt in 1933.
Nail tried to start successor companies but was never able to see his goals accomplished. By the 1930s, Harlem had become an area of teeming tenements filled by working-class African Americans rather than an area of individually owned homes.
John E. Nail died on March 5, 1947, in New York City.
Photo credit: 1-2) source. John E. Nail, ca. 1915, (Yale Collection of American Literature Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscripts Library).