1927 LAND AUCTION -
WHEN THE HARLEM RENAISSANCE REACHED SORRENTO
The year after Jones died, W.E.B. DuBois, the African American educator, writer, and civil rights leader was invited to Maine to speak to an audience at Northeast Harbor. DuBois was a native of Massachusetts and had attended Fisk University, a historically Black institution in Nashville. In 1895 be became the first Black man to receive a PhD. from Harvard, and was famously quoted as saying
This would not be DuBois' last visit to Mount Desert Island. In July 1905 DuBois was invited back to Maine by his colleague Edward T. Ware the President of Atlanta University -- the Black college where both men taught -- to speak again at Northeast Harbor. On this visit, he was invited by the Scheiffflins to deliver a second speech at the Bar Harbor Swimming Pool Club.
Here, then, is beauty and ugliness, a wide vision of world-sacrifice, a fierce gleam of world-hate. Which is life and what is death and how shall we face so tantalizing a contradiction? Any explanation must necessarily be subtle and involved. No pert and easy word of encouragement, no merely dark despair, can lay hold of the roots of these things. And first and before all, we cannot forget that this world is beautiful. Grant all its ugliness and sin—the petty, horrible snarl of its putrid threads, which few have seen more near or more often than I—notwithstanding all this, the beauty of this world is not to be denied.Casting my eyes about I dare not let them rest on the beauty of Love and Friend, for even if my tongue were cunning enough to sing this, the revelation of reality here is too sacred and the fancy too untrue. Of one world-beauty alone may we at once be brutally frank and that is the glory of physical nature; this, though the last of beauties, is divine!And so, too, there are depths of human degradation which it is not fair for us to probe. With all their horrible prevalence, we cannot call them natural. But may we not compare the least of the world's beauty with the least of its ugliness—not murder, starvation, and rapine, with love and friendship and creation—but the glory of sea and sky and city, with the little hatefulnesses and thoughtfulnesses of race prejudice, that out of such juxtaposition we may, perhaps, deduce some rule of beauty and life—or death?
There mountains hurl themselves against the stars and at their feet lie black and leaden seas. Above float clouds—white, gray, and inken, while the clear, impalpable air springs and sparkles like new wine. Last night we floated on the calm bosom of the sea in the southernmost haven of Mount Desert. The water flamed and sparkled. The sun had gone, but above the crooked back of cumulus clouds, dark and pink with radiance, and on the other sky aloft to the eastward piled the gorgeous-curtained mists of evening. The radiance faded and a shadowy velvet veiled the mountains, a humid depth of gloom behind which lurked all the mysteries of life and death, while above, the clouds hung ashen and dull; lights twinkled and flashed along the shore, boats glided in the twilight, and the little puffing of motors droned away. Then was the hour to talk of life and the meaning of life, while above gleamed silently, suddenly, star on star.
Bar Harbor lies beneath a mighty mountain, a great, bare, black mountain that sleeps above the town; but as you leave, it rises suddenly, threateningly, until far away on Frenchman's Bay it looms above the town in withering vastness, as if to call all that little world petty save itself. Beneath the cool, wide stare of that great mountain, men cannot live as giddily as in some lesser summer's playground. Before the unveiled face of nature, as it lies naked on the Maine coast, rises a certain human awe.
God molded his world largely and mightily off this marvelous coast and meant that in the tired days of life men should come and worship here and renew their spirit. This I have done and turning I go to work again. As we go, ever the mountains of Mount Desert rise and greet us on our going—somber, rock-ribbed and silent, looking unmoved on the moving world, yet conscious of their everlasting strength.
About us beats the sea—the sail-flecked, restless sea, humming its tune about our flying keel, unmindful of the voices of men. The land sinks to meadows, black pine forests, with here and there a blue and wistful mountain. Then there are islands—bold rocks above the sea, curled meadows; through and about them roll ships, weather-beaten and patched of sail, strong-hulled and smoking, light gray and shining. All the colors of the sea lie about us—gray and yellowing greens and doubtful blues, blacks not quite black, tinted silvers and golds and dreaming whites. Long tongues of dark and golden land lick far out into the tossing waters, and the white gulls sail and scream above them. It is a mighty coast—ground out and pounded, scarred, crushed, and carven in massive, frightful lineaments. Everywhere stand the pines—the little dark and steadfast pines that smile not, neither weep, but wait and wait. Near us lie isles of flesh and blood, white cottages, tiled and meadowed. Afar lie shadow-lands, high mist-hidden hills, mountains boldly limned, yet shading to the sky, faint and unreal.
We skirt the pine-clad shores, chary of men, and know how bitterly winter kisses these lonely shores to fill yon row of beaked ice houses that creep up the hills. We are sailing due westward and the sun, yet two hours high, is blazoning a fiery glory on the sea that spreads and gleams like some broad, jeweled trail, to where the blue and distant shadow-land lifts its carven front aloft, leaving, as it gropes, shades of shadows beyond.
Why do not those who are scarred in the world's battle and hurt by its hardness travel to these places of beauty and drown themselves in the utter joy of life? I asked this once sitting in a Southern home. Outside the spring of a Georgia February was luring gold to the bushes and languor to the soft air. Around me sat color in human flesh—brown that crimsoned readily; dim soft-yellow that escaped description; cream-like duskiness that shadowed to rich tints of autumn leaves. And yet a suggested journey in the world brought no response."I should think you would like to travel," said the white one.But no, the thought of a journey seemed to depress them.Did you ever see a "Jim-Crow" waiting-room? There are always exceptions, as at Greensboro—but usually there is no heat in winter and no air in summer; with undisturbed loafers and train hands and broken, disreputable settees; to buy a ticket is torture; you stand and stand and wait and wait until every white person at the "other window" is waited on. Then the tired agent yells across, because all the tickets and money are over there—"What d'ye want? What? Where?"The agent browbeats and contradicts you, hurries and confuses the ignorant, gives many persons the wrong change, compels some to purchase their tickets on the train at a higher price, and sends you and me out on the platform, burning with indignation and hatred!The "Jim-Crow" car is up next the baggage car and engine. It stops out beyond the covering in the rain or sun or dust. Usually there is no step to help you climb on and often the car is a smoker cut in two and you must pass through the white smokers or else they pass through your part, with swagger and noise and stares. Your compartment is a half or a quarter or an eighth of the oldest car in service on the road. Unless it happens to be a thorough express, the plush is caked with dirt, the floor is grimy, and the windows dirty. An impertinent white newsboy occupies two seats at the end of the car and importunes you to the point of rage to buy cheap candy, Coco-Cola, and worthless, if not vulgar, books. He yells and swaggers, while a continued stream of white men saunters back and forth from the smoker to buy and hear. The white train crew from the baggage car uses the "Jim-Crow" to lounge in and perform their toilet. The conductor appropriates two seats for himself and his papers and yells gruffly for your tickets before the train has scarcely started. It is best not to ask him for information even in the gentlest tones. His information is for white persons chiefly. It is difficult to get lunch or clean water. Lunch rooms either don't serve n***ers or serve them at some dirty and ill-attended hole in the wall. As for toilet rooms,—don't! If you have to change cars, be wary of junctions which are usually without accommodation and filled with quarrelsome white persons who hate a "darky dressed up." You are apt to have the company of a sheriff and a couple of meek or sullen black prisoners on part of your way and dirty colored section hands will pour in toward night and drive you to the smallest corner."No," said the little lady in the corner (she looked like an ivory cameo and her dress flowed on her like a caress), "we don't travel much."
Sorrento has a particularly somber connection with Jim-Crow, as it was the Summer home of Chief Justice Melville W. Fuller. A native of Augusta and a graduate of Bowdoin College, Fuller and his family began to vacation at Sorrento in 1894. On July 4, 1910, Justice Fuller died at the age of 77 at his cottage in Sorrento.
Appointed in 1888 by President Cleveland, Fuller presided over the US Supreme Court and voted in the majority when it issued its 1896 seminal decision in Plessy v. Ferguson. Plessy of course institutionalized the doctrine of "separate but equal" which spelled the end of efforts during Reconstruction to limit racial segregation. The legacy of the court's decision would cast a shadow over American race relations until the 1950s and prevented efforts to advance desegregation for more than half a century.
In the Spring of 1906, the executors of the Frank Jones estate sold the Hotel Sorrento which sat on the hill above the harbor to Boston developers. In late June, however, the 250 room hotel and cafe burned to the ground, eliminating a large attraction for visitors.
For the next two decades, Grant, and a succession of partners and companies, attempted to market the land in Sorrento. By 1925 the land and buildings once owned by the Jones family were controlled by the Charles A. Mann Realty Company of Manhattan. Mann's company intended to invest considerable capital to rebuild the resort, and that Summer ran a full-page ad in the Bangor Daily News proclaiming Sorrento as "The Most Beautiful Spot on the Maine Coast."
The advertisement included sales terms that would require 70% of the purchase price to be paid within 30 days of the auction. While many other homes and amenities in Sorrento were featured in the advertisement -- including the golf course, library, and swimming pool -- these facilities were not owned by the company and were not included in the auction. However, several large cottages formerly used as hotels by Mann's company, and all of what is now Treasure Island, would be up for sale.
The NY Times article included another detail, that a NY real estate investor -- Joseph S. Edleman -- originally held the option rights. It appears the Sorrento land auction was not well attended and sales of only $30,000 were reported. Neither the amount of Edelman's winning bid for the 1200 quarter-acre lots nor how much Nail needed to raise to exercise his option was disclosed.
Although not part of the reporting, I have considered the possibility that an effort was made to deflect from Nail's involvement by drafting Edelman to make the winning bid in Bar Harbor. We will probably never know if there was a prearranged agreement to have Edelman submit a bid and then quietly transfer the rights to John Nail. But this scenario is circumstantially supported by an announcement in a trade paper a few years earlier. Instead of listing Edelman as a real estate investor, he is identified as the advertising director employed by Joseph P. Day, the company that ran the auction.
After helping his father at the hotel for several years, the younger Nail moved on to become a broker for Philip A. Payton Jr.'s Afro-American Realty Co., one of the earliest Black-owned real estate companies in Harlem. Nail then established his own real estate firm with partner Henry C. Parker.
Nail continued to assist with other Harlem business endeavors. In the early 1920s, Nail's Harlem firm was involved with leasing space for a store to a subsidiary of Marcus Garvey's "Back to Africa" Black Star Steamship Line in Harlem.
In the early 1920s, Nail was one of the founders of the first Black-owned recording company. Based in Harlem, Black Swan Records began in 1921 as the record division of Pace Phonographic Corporation by Harry Pace. Pace was a partner of W.C. Handy in a Memphis music publishing business and a former college student of W.E.B. DuBois in Atlanta. The record label was named for African American opera singer Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield who was known as “The Black Swan.” Along with Nail, the company's Board of Directors included W.E.B. DuBois and James Weldon Johnson. The label was notable for its recordings of Ethel Waters and for hiring Fletcher Henderson before he went on to fame as an arranger for Duke Ellington.
The company, however, was never a financial success and by 1926 Black Swan was nearly bankrupt. Nail and DuBois were forced to write to the investors in a final attempt to keep the company afloat.
Despite his community involvement and successful real estate ventures, financial challenges were a recurring dilemma in Nail's business investments. An article in 1926 covers Nail lamenting the hardship Blacks faced to secure financing for building projects even though their deposits in Harlem banks exceeded $25 million. And while Nail was able to rent apartments to Blacks, homeownership and securing mortgages for these customers was much more difficult.
To secure financing for the project, Nail & Page may have tried to interest some of their friends in show business to provide backing. An article in late September in the Pittsburgh Gazette makes it appear that Ethel Waters and her husband Earl Dancer were approached to participate. It was also reported that actor Paul Robeson, singer Florence Mills, and heavyweight boxer Harry Wills might join in to buy estates in a possible Sorrento "...Race colony."
On November 18, 1927, a few weeks after their scouting tour, DuBois sent Nail a follow-up letter together with an account of their recent trip to Maine.
Over the next few years, Nail struggled as the American economy faltered, and his dream to develop an African-American resort in Sorrento ended. In a 1928 letter he wrote to DuBois, concerning another real estate matter in Harlem, he laments that he entered the "...business with lots of ideals," but after twenty-one years he was ready to "...adjust myself to conditions over which no individual has any control."
Like so many others during the Great Depression, in 1933 Nail was forced to declare bankruptcy and never fully recovered his real estate holdings. He was able to protect St. Phillip's Church from losing its properties to foreclosure. But the deal he negotiated with a White-owned company to lease the property required the church to accept no revenue for ten years.