February 18, 2021




The front cover of the September 12, 1927 edition of Time magazine featured the portrait of Britsh author E. Phillips Oppenheim.  Inside on page 10 -- under the headline "NEGROES Near Bar Harbor" -- was a brief story detailing the news that an African-American New York real estate agent had acquired an option to purchase property in Sorrento, Maine. Sorrento was described as a somewhat stodgy village where "...people, rich and respectable, rather than smart, stay for a few weeks or a month or two."

The Time article noted that another New York firm, headed by Joseph S. Edelman, originally held the option to buy the land.  In turn, it was reported that he had passed this right to John E. Nail who was planning to "...organize a fashionable Negro summer resort."  In addition to being a "Negro real estate operator," a footnote indicated that John E. Nail was a director of the NAACP.

When I stumbled across this article several years ago I was astonished since it was a story I had never heard recounted about Sorrento.  How could this important chapter in Sorrento and American history have remained forgotten for so long?  Further research led me to discover much more about John E. Nail.  Most importantly, I gained a broader appreciation of his life, associations, and the obstacles Nail encountered that ultimately ended his plans for a Black-owned resort on the coast of Maine.

John E. Nail


On October 2, 1902, New Hampshire brewer Frank Jones died at the age of 70.  Jones and his family had been the principal financial backers of Sorrento during the first fifteen years after the resort was established.  Jones left a large fortune and his estate, including extensive Sorrento holdings, would take several years to settle. The work of the Jones executors was complicated by various predicaments, including a lawsuit brought by Delana Curtis, his long-term mistress.  Curtis sued the estate for half a million dollars for "services" she alleged to have provided Jones and his friends for more than 30 years.  The story of Jones, Curtis, and Sorrento is a longer tale and will require another chapter in this blog.

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 
"...the honor, I assure you was Harvard's."  During this visit to Mount Desert Island, he was the guest of Harvard President Charles Elliot.

1903 was also the year DuBois published his seminal work "The Souls of Black Folks" in which he first expressed a conflict he labeled "double consciousness." He explained this as the struggle that Black Americans experienced "...always looking at one's self through the eyes..." of a racist society and "...measuring oneself by the means of a nation that looked back in contempt."  DuBois described being shut out from the White "...world by a vast veil..." and asked "...[w]hy did God make me an outcast and a stranger in mine own house?"

While no transcript survives of what DuBois covered in his lecture at the Northeast Harbor Parish house, at the time DuBois was advocating for a more well-rounded educational system for African-Americans.  His new vision was far different than the "industrial" education that Booker T. Washington had urged.  In addition to promoting his writings and fundraising for Atlanta University, I suspect he also confronted his audience with a new call for racial equality in America, forty years after emancipation.

At the dawn of the 20th century, DuBois was starting to advance a much different approach and tone toward Black civil rights than had previously been heard.  He was breaking from the views of Black "accommodationism" that Booker T. Washington had supported in the "Atlanta Compromise."  As DuBois wrote, he now wanted to work to create a society that could finally "...make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face."

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.  

This visit and both lectures are notable as DuBois seems to have made the trip to Maine on his way back from the initial Niagara Conference.  That meeting had occurred just a week earlier and ushered in the modern Civil Rights movement in America.  At the conference, attendees from around the country called for the end of segregation and boldly expressed in its principles that "...we refuse to allow the impression to remain that the Negro-American assents to inferiority, is submissive under oppression and apologetic before insults.

Evidently, a few years later DuBois accepted another invitation to MDI, this time to stay with Jane Addams in Bar Harbor at  Baymeath.  Jane Addams, the founder of Hull House in Chicago, was a frequent guest of her patrons, the home's owners Louise and Joseph Bowen.  Addams once said she was able to raise more money in a few weeks in Bar Harbor than anyplace else the rest of the year.  She and her partner, Mary Rozet Smith, would later purchase their own cottage in Hulls Cove in 1914.
To expand upon the work begun at the Niagra Conferences, in 1912 DuBois helped to found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).  As the editor and publisher of The Crisis, the organization's national magazine, DuBois moved to NYC and became a leader of the NAACP in its battle for civil rights.  Jane Addams was invited to be part of this interracial group and became one of the founding members.

After WWI, DuBois published another work entitled "DARKWATER; Voices from within the Veil."  Issued in 1920, the book was a collection of essays where he would  “...venture to write again on themes on which great souls have already said greater words, in the hope that I may strike here and there a half-tone, newer even if slighter, up from the heart of my problem and the problems of my people.

This book includes remarkable descriptions of the beauties of numerous National Parks he had visited, including Acadia which had been established several years earlier.  Evidently, the coast of Maine was compelling to DuBois, and in Chapter IX entitled OF BEAUTY AND DEATH, he describes in sweeping detail the awe it inspired.

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.

In recounting his many trips around the country and the wonders of nature he encountered, DuBois wonders why more African-Americans did not travel to these places.  Explaining the indignities faced because of his race, sadly he reflects that the legacies of Jim-Crow had put the joy of visiting these sites beyond most of his people.

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.

In 1908 the executors of the estate of Frank Jones negotiated the sale of the remainder of the family's large property holdings in Sorrento to George H. Grant of Ellsworth and Hancock Point. (see Hancock Co. deeds Book 450 / page 1).  Grant had many business interests in the area and together with Fred Lynam had founded the Bar Harbor Bank and Trust Co. in 1887.

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."

In an article a year later in the Spring of 1926, Mann promoted 600 acres of land in Sorrento for sale at "...about one-seventh the price asked in Seal Harbor and Northeast Harbor."

Despite the company's efforts to generate new land sales in Sorrento, these attempts were largely unsuccessful. In 1927 the Charles A. Mann Realty Company decided to divest itself of the holdings. The owner engaged the firm of Joseph P. Day to conduct a well-publicized auction scheduled for August 20, 1927, in Bar Harbor.

Joseph P. Day had headquarters at 67 Liberty Street in NYC and was a preeminent real estate broker and auctioneer on the East Coast.  Day's company was responsible for selling and developing large portions of land in the outer boroughs of NYC including in the Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island.  Day had a home in Manhattan and an estate named Pleasant Days in Short Hills, NJ.  Today his estate gardens are all that remain and Greenwood Gardens are open to the public.

Day's instructions were to sell the Sorrento land regardless of cost, value, or price.


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.

Two weeks after the auction the New York Times reported in the Sunday real estate pages that a group of African-American investors from New York had secured the option to acquire the Sorrento property.  According to the article, John E. Nail of the Harlem real estate firm of Nail & Parker would lead a "syndicate of negro friends" to finance the purchase.  The headline indicated that because of the distance between Bar Harbor and Sorrento, there did not seem to be any concern on Mount Desert Island to what it termed the potential "Colored Invasion."



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.


John (Jack) E. Nail was a leading Harlem real estate investor.  Born in 1888 in Connecticut, Nail grew up in Manhattan where his father and uncle were successful businessmen.  The two owned a "high class" hotel, bar, and billiards parlor on 6th Avenue and 28th Street catering to African-American gentlemen. In 1903 his father, John B. Nail, was quoted that the secret for a wealthy and educated Black man was to remain "...as inconspicuous a possible, so far as the white people are concerned."

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's most significant real estate transaction occurred in 1911. He represented St. Philip's Episcopal Church, the oldest Black Episcopal parish in NYC to sell their landholdings around 25th Street in Manhattan.  The sale funded the construction of a new building for the church, designed by African-American architect Vertner Woodson Tandy, on West 135th Street.   He then helped the church to reinvest the remaining proceeds in ten Harlem apartment buildings on the same block.  

The shift of Black residents from other areas in Manhattan was not without problems.  Nail's company managed the apartment buildings for the church and wanted to rent to Black tenants. A group of White tenants sued when they were displaced, but a local magistrate judge ruled he could not block the evictions and permitted Nail to rent to whomever he wished.

Over the next decade, the population of Black residents in Harlem would more than double and usher in the era's Harlem Renaissance.  Harlem became the center of African-American life in NYC and established Upper Manhattan as the "cultural mecca" of African-American literature, music, and art. 

In addition to his business dealings, John Nail also became a leader in civil rights and was an early director of the Harlem branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).  Alongside activists such as W.E.B. DuBois and Nail's brother-in-law, James Weldon Johnson, the group helped to plan the July 1917 Silent Protest Parade.  Organized in the wake of D. W. Griffith's controversial 1915 silent movie "Birth of a Nation" which glorified the KKK and helped spark the rise of actual KKK-led violence around the country, this was the first civil rights march held in Manhattan.  

Hundreds participated in a peaceful parade down 5th Avenue to protest racial lynchings and a series of violent riots that Summer. In photos of the parade, Nail can be seen leading the marchers together with his fellow organizers, James Weldon Johnson, W. E. B. DuBois, and Rev. Hutchens Chew of St. Philip's Episcopal Church.  Regrettably, just two years later in 1919, during what James Weldon Johnson would name the "Red Summer," another violent series of killings of Blacks and riots would explode throughout the country, 

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 1924 Nail participated in founding the financing arm of the National Negro Business League to help promote and fund Black businesses.

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.
Nail and his real estate partner Henry Parker were not without other financial controversies.  In 1925 they attempted to secure control of one of the earliest Black-owned country clubs. The two were evidently unsuccessful and were accused of abandoning Shady Rest Golf Club in Scotch Plains, NJ, and leaving with the funds intended to pay off the mortgage.

By 1927 Nail was the preeminent  Harlem real estate broker and managed investments that reportedly generated millions of dollars in rental income each year.  He had helped to establish several African-American institutions in NYC such as the Harlem YMCA and supported local banks. A 1925 article in the March issue of  The Crisis contained a full portrait of the investor.  In 1925 he was listed as one of the founders of the NY Public Library's Schomberg Center.

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.


In the Summer of 1927, at the height of Jim-Crow discrimination, Nail and Parker sensed an opportunity to develop a Black-owned resort in an isolated hamlet in Downeast Maine.  News of the results of the Sorrento land auction broke in both the national press and African American publications around the country.  Headlines reporting Nail's successful offer to purchase the land in Maine continued to appear for several more weeks in September.  

A report on September 3rd in the Christian Science Monitor provided additional details about his firm and its role as the realtor for African-American beauty product entrepreneur Madame C. J. Walker's estate in Westchester.  Amusingly, the article misidentified the location of Sorrento as being "...across the Narrow Salisbury Cove from Bar Harbor," a mistake later repeated in Time magazine.  It also indicated that leaders in Harlem had been looking for a "...a summer place..." for many years.

In Harlem, the Amsterdam News covered the story days later on September 7th.  It provided a few more interesting details, especially the news that Nail & Parker intended this to be an exclusive resort with sales of estates costing $30,000 - $100,000.  No doubt anticipating the controversy a Black-owned resort would create, the backers were careful to say that they planned to have only "...a few families at first..." and gradually build-up sales to "...the most desirable element."

The article also pointed out that the option might end like similar attempts to establish Black-owned resorts in the country "...and come to naught by being later repurchased by white people."  Indeed, it went on to conclude, that "...many profess to see in the announcement nothing more than a scheme to force the sale of Sorrento by injecting the color question into it."

Despite these worries, the correspondent wished Nail and Parker well and pointed out that if they could finalize the deal, that it could be profitable since "...many well-to-do citizens of color all over the country have longed for just such a place."

Coverage of the transaction in another Black-owned newspaper had a different slant.  A September 10th headline in the Pittsburg Courier, that city's African-American paper, exclaimed "BAR HARBOR IS ALARMED."  This was the exact opposite of the sentiment seen just days earlier in the NY Times article that seemed to indicate there were no worries in Bar Harbor.  

It is not clear if this article was based on any actual reporting or simply editorializing when it claimed that Bar Harbor was "...perturbed..." and filled with a "...feeling of uneasiness bordering on alarm."  The paper went on to declare that the "...Nordic high and mighty..." who fear a "Negro Invasionshould be viewed with "...amusement, pity, and disgust."  Arguing that if these same people who were seemingly allies of those seeking civil rights would only practice what they preach "...the Negroes lot in this country would be much different than what it is."

The article concluded in an exasperated tone and defended the plan to establish a Black-owned resort.  Although the new owners would be "...polite, urbane, tidy and altogether a credit to the section..." some "...Nordics are as much disturbed as though the state of Maine was going to establish a prison farm next door."  It concluded by calling those people who would "...allow color prejudice to warp their minds..." as not "...entirely sane..." and described America as being "...a nation that is really a lunatic asylum in so far as skin color is concerned."

Despite the story in Pittsburg exclaiming possible fears about a Black-owned resort, the headline on the same day in Black-owned NY Age echoed the NY Times headline indicating there was "NO EXCITEMENT" on MDI over the purchase.  This reporter also seems to have taken the time to study a map and points out that the eight-mile distance between the "...bathing beaches...removes any possibility of conflict.

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."

While the Amsterdam News may have speculated that the entire deal might just be a "...scheme to force the sale of Sorrento by injecting the color question into it...," the action Nail took in the next weeks demonstrate he believed the purchase could become a reality.  Clearly, he could not finance this purchase alone and would need to secure additional investors.  To advance that effort, he organized a trip to visit Sorrento.  

On November 2, 1927, Nail traveled by overnight train from Grand Central Station in NYC to Maine.  He was accompanied on the 18-hour trip by George H. Harris editor of the NY News,  Eugene Kinckle Jones of the Urban League, Thomas W. Taylor of the Harlem YMCA,  Henry H. Pace (who had been Nail's partner in Black Swan Records and now a life insurance executive), and W.E.B. DuBois.

The following documentation of the trip is found in the DuBois Papers archive at the University of Massachusetts.
Du Bois, W. E. B. (William Edward Burghardt), 1868-1963. Resort for Negroes in Bar Harbor, Maine, ca. 1926. W. E. B. Du Bois Papers (MS 312). Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries

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.

As a side note, on the same day that DuBois wrote to Nail, President Calvin Coolidge commuted the prison sentence of Marcus Garvey, who had been convicted of defrauding investors in his "Back to Africa" campaign.  DuBois had been a fierce critic of Garvey and exposed his corruption in the pages of The Crisis.   J. Edgar Hoover had obtained the evidence against Garvey with the help of James Wormley Jones, the first Black FBI special agent hired specifically to infiltrate his operation.  Immediately after his release from prison, Garvey was deported to the island of Jamaica.

DuBois wrote his report to support Nail's efforts to raise the funds needed to exercise his option on the Sorrento property.  He was familiar with this section of the coast of Maine from his earlier visits and describes the "...combination of mountains and sea, the highlands coming straight down to the water with islands and deep indentations into the land, rolling hills, rocks, trees and beautiful resorts..." as "...one of the most beautiful places in the United States."  He extols Sorrento's advantages with three hotels, a golf course, swimming pool, docks, boat landings, a post office, excellent roads, clean water, and most importantly "...a  population of kindly people without race prejudices."

DuBois went on to outline the sales pitch and asked "...are there enough American Negroes who appreciate a quiet, Exclusive resort of this sort to finance it?" Instead of marketing to a few well-to-do purchasers, DuBois proposed finding 500 persons able to invest "...$1,000.00 each into the proposition..." and "...be part of one of the finest summer settlements in the United States of America."  At a time when the average salary for Blacks was less than $50.00 per week, this luxury was likely well beyond the means of most.  Indeed, based on the failures of the prior owners to generate interest in land sales in town, finding 500 persons of any race able to spend $1,000.00 per acre would be difficult.
Despite his efforts, it appears Nail was unable to secure the funds necessary to exercise the option to purchase the Sorrento property. Remember that the auction terms indicated that 70% of the purchase price had to be provided within 30 days. Based on some later deed records, I estimate that Nail would need to have raised at least $30,000-$50,000 to acquire the land.  The country was in the midst of a recession in 1926 and 1927 and his Black-owned enterprise faced a daunting challenge to quickly find the financing.

Sadly, Florence Mills, one of the entertainers rumored to help back his effort, died on November 1st at the age of 31. This was just one day before Nail and his group took their trip to Maine.  She had starred in Eubie Blake's hit musical "Shuffle Along" together with Paul Robeson.  Billed as the "Queen of Happiness," her funeral was held on November 6th and attracted 10,000 mourners to the streets of Harlem.

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."
In the increasingly declining economy, he experienced problems financing his business.  Even before the stock market crash, Nail was forced to charge increasingly higher rents to cover expenses.  In 1929 he was accused of "Rent Slavery" in the Daily Worker when NYC tenants organized rent strikes.

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.

John E. Nail died in 1947 in Manhattan at the age of 63, and his obituary was featured in the NY Times.

As to the 600 acres of land in Sorrento, it does not appear that any other buyers stepped forward after the 1927 auction to exercise the purchase option.  Like John Nail, The Charles A. Mann Company, who originally auctioned and mortgaged the land, also did not fare well during the Great Depression.  In April of 1934, Merritt T. Ober was forced to foreclose on a $45,000.00 mortgage he held on the Sorrento property, (see Hancock Co. deeds Book 649 / page 88).  After Merritt's sudden death in May of 1935, it would be another decade until the Ober family sold the land.


We can only guess how Sorrento may have evolved if John E. Nail had succeeded in buying the land in 1927.  Could he have established a thriving Summer haven for African-Americans similar to those in Oak Bluffs or Sag Harbor?  How would the families that had vacationed there for decades and the year-round residents have reacted if the land had been sold to Nail?

I like to think that the town and its inhabitants would have welcomed the new owners especially after Dubois described it as having  "...a  population of kindly people without race prejudices."  Although it is not well known, there was a Summer resident who may have readily embraced Nail's purchase.  

Louise Bouvier Drexel Morrell was the widow of Edward de Veaux Morrell.  The Morrell's had purchased Calf Island off the coast of Sorrento in 1911.  Louise also owned two cottages in town.  In 1926, After her husband's death, Louise sold Thirlstane, her mansion in Bar Harbor, to spend more time on Calf Island and in Sorrento.

Louise Morrell's sister was Mother Katharine Drexel the founder of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament and the second American canonized as a saint. The Drexel sisters used the bulk of their inheritance to fund educational institutions for Native Americans and African-Americans.  Among the many institutions they founded, was Xavier University in 1925 in New Orleans, the only Historically Black Roman Catholic University.  More than a decade earlier, Mother Drexel founded St. Marks School, the first Catholic school in NYC for African-American children on 138th St. in Harlem.



There are a couple of other Maine-related postscripts to John Nail's attempt to purchase the Sorrento property.  Around that same time, John Nail and W.E.B. DuBois established Summer retreats near Great Barrington, Massachusetts where DuBois was born. As a 60th birthday gift to DuBois, the town presented him with his boyhood home in 1928.  He attempted to turn this into a Summer retreat but was not able to afford the renovations.  Today the land is a National Historic site.

Joining them in Great Barrington was John Nail's sister Grace Nail Johnson and her husband, the multi-talented musician, writer, and lawyer James Weldon Johnson.  Johnson is most famously remembered for writing the lyrics for what has become the Black National Anthem Lift Every Voice and SingTogether with DuBois, the Johnsons were at the center of the Harlem Renaissance and leaders of the early Civil Rights movement.  The Johnsons built a retreat in Great Barrington they named "Five Acres" where he wrote some of his greatest works, including "God's Trombones.

Unable to afford to maintain the gift of his childhood home, and with Nail's unsuccessful effort to establish a Black-owned resort in Sorrento, DuBois went in search of another Summer retreat.  In the early 1930s, Dubois was introduced to an inter-racial gentleman's club in West Gardiner, Maine. During Summers for the next several decades, Dubois spent time at the Cambridge Gun and Rod Club. It was one of the few places that J. Edgar Hoover's FBI agents -- who were tasked with trailing him to investigate his "UnAmerican Activities" -- would leave DuBois in peace.

Finally, James Weldon Johnson has a more tragic relationship with Maine.  On a rainy night in June of  1938, with his wife at the wheel, Johnson was killed when their car was hit by a train in Wiscasset. Some reports indicate that the Johnsons were returning from their Maine Summer home, possibly in Dark Harbor.  Although other accounts say they were visiting friends in Pleasant Point in Thomaston.  I have not been able to locate any records to show that the Johnsons owned a home nearby in Maine, so where their trip originated that night needs more research.  There could be clues on a map in the Yale archives from 1938, with notes by Grace Nail Johnson and photographer Carl Van Vechten, with routes marked between Maine and Great Barrington, MA.