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Photographed on December 3, 1932
   

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Today, Grace Nail Johnson is best known as the wife of poet, essayist, and civil rights activist James Weldon Johnson. She was, however, a powerful and influential advocate for social change in her own right. Like her husband, Johnson was committed to encouraging African-American writers and artists and to supporting research in African-American culture.

Grace Nail, the daughter of a wealthy and well-respected New York family, met her future husband when she was a teenager. Fifteen years her senior, James Weldon Johnson was then living in Puerto Cabello, Venezuela, as the United States consul; they met when Johnson made a brief visit to New York City. Johnson courted Grace Nail from Puerto Cabello and later from Corinto, Nicaragua, where he became consul in 1908. After they married in New York in 1910, Grace Neil Johnson joined her husband in Nicaragua. The people of Corinto welcomed Grace Johnson with an unusual gift—a yellow parrot named LuLu. When she returned to the United States, Johnson took the bird with her and she kept the pet for the rest of her life. LuLu, in fact, outlived Johnson by some twenty years.

When they returned to New York, the Johnson’s moved to Harlem, where they became central figures of the Harlem Renaissance. Grace Johnson was one of the most celebrated hostesses of the time, entertaining the African-American political and artistic elite. In addition, Mrs. Johnson worked in support of a number of important civil rights groups, fighting for equal job opportunities for men and women of color, and for equal pay for African-American workers, most of whom then made significantly less than their white counterparts in the same fields. As a result of her valuable work, her high profile, and her generous spirit, Johnson became a mentor to many younger African-American women.

When James Weldon Johnson was killed in a car accident in 1938, Grace Johnson continued to promote the ideal of social justice to which he had dedicated his life. As a result of her work, many schools, community centers, and housing complexes bear his name. In support of Carl Van Vechten’s idea to memorialize James Weldon Johnson by establishing an African-American research center, she made a gift of all her husband’s papers, books, and correspondence to Yale University to establish the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection of Negro Arts and Letters.

Other writers and artists, including Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Jean Toomer, and Richard Wright contributed their archives to the collection as well, helping to make it one of the premier archives of materials supporting research about African-American culture in the United States. In a letter to Van Vechten, Johnson expressed her hopes for the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection, “May the years add to, sustain, and keep enriched the Collection, and in your lifetime see expanded the awareness and interest that supports so great a cause in human endeavor and understanding.”1

During World War II Johnson resigned as a member of the sponsors’ committee of the American Women’s Voluntary Services because the group evaded her efforts to include African Americans in work projects in support of Civil Defense. She felt that she had been invited to join the group as “window dressing.” In her powerful resignation letter to the organization’s president, Johnson wrote:

  Token representation to hide discrimination puts further doubts into the minds of 13,000,000 American citizens, . . . this brand of democracy cannot win the war. Insistently, wise and courageous leadership must oppose the forces that would make America a laughing stock before the world.2


1 Johnson to Van Vechten 11 Apr. 1950 Van Vechten Papers Beinecke Library Yale University
2 Grace Nail Johnson “Mrs. James Weldon Johnson Quits the AWVS” Pittsburgh Courier 28 Feb. 1942

 

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