Grace Nail Johnson was known as “the grand dame of Harlem.” She earned the title by tirelessly supporting the arts and activist causes, primarily Civil Rights and the Women’s Suffrage Movement. The Harlem home she shared with her husband (the poet, writer, and activist James Weldon Johnson) became a sanctuary for Harlem Renaissance writers, painters, and musicians. There, Nail Johnson would survey their work and offer sage advice, in turn assuming the role of mentor for young artists.
As the only black member of Heterodoxy, a feminist debate club in Greenwich village, she also voiced her passionate commitment to equal rights for women and the black community. Among other activist achievements, she founded the NAACP Junior League in 1929, and made a trip to the White House in 1941 at Eleanor Roosevelt’s invitation, to discuss race relations.
Her fight for equality extended to art, too. After her husband’s death, she and Harlem Renaissance photographer Carl Van Vechten established the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection of American Negro Arts and Letters (now called the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection) at Yale University. An essential act of artistic preservation when many established museums and institutions ignored art made by people of color, it remains one of the most important archives of art, writing, and ephemera documenting the Harlem Renaissance’s vast creative output.