John E. "Jack" Nail, Harlem real estate visionary

Nail in 1915 // Photo courtesy Yale Collection of American Literature Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, Public Domain


By Marjorie Rogers

John E. “Jack” Nail was born Aug. 22, 1883 in New London, CT. In 1904 he started working as a salesman at The Afro-American Realty Company, headed by Harlem real estate mogul Philip A. Payton, Jr

When The Afro-American Realty Company began experiencing financial difficulties in 1907, Nail left the firm and opened his own realty business in Harlem with another real estate salesman, Henry C. Parker. Nail and Parker Associates sold real estate to the Black middle class in Harlem and further north. 

Print advertisement for Nail and Parker's business // Photo courtesy Sorrento History

According to Nail, economic discrepancies existed along racial lines in New York, and this affected the quality of housing for many Black New Yorkers. 

“Most colored tenants take roomers,” Nail said during a 1939 interview. “This situation has always prevailed.” 

In the interview, Nail addressed deviations from the trend he noticed. “[Black people] find occasional instances where a larger apartment has been divided up into two or more units, but this is the exception rather than the rule.” 

Nail aimed to end these housing inequalities by filling the neighborhood with Black homeowners and tenants. He envisioned Harlem as New York’s center for the Black middle class, with accessible housing and opportunities for economic advancement. 

Nail and Parker Associates sold properties to Black homebuyers and purchased apartment complexes to rent out to Black tenants. By 1925, the company managed roughly 50 apartment buildings. With the millions of dollars in revenue from their many real estate endeavors, Nail and Parker were able to fund many neighborhood amenities such as the Harlem YMCA. They also contributed to civil rights organizations, including the NAACP and the National Urban League. 

Nail driving a car with writer and NAACP activist James Weldon Johnson riding in the passenger seat in 1915 // Photo courtesy Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

Nail was the wealthiest and most influential Black realtor in New York during the early twentieth century. He served as the only Black member on the Real Estate Board of New York and the Housing Committee of New York.  

Nail and Parker Associates went bankrupt in 1933 during the Great Depression, following years of operation in a strained economy. As a result, Harlem shifted toward a working-class tenement neighborhood rather than the center of Black homeownership that Nail had envisioned. Although Nail tried to rekindle a realty business, the economic depression hindered his efforts. Nail died on March 5, 1947 at the age of 63. 


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