Nella Larsen was born Nellie Walker in a poor district of Chicago known as the Levee, on April 13, 1891, the daughter of Peter Walker, likely a mulatto Afro-Caribbean immigrant from the Danish West Indies and Marie Walker, née Hansen, a Danish immigrant. Her mother was a seamstress and domestic worker. Her father was likely a mixed-race descendant of Henry or George Walker, white men from Albany, New York who settled in the Danish West Indies about 1840. In that Danish society, racial lines were more fluid and Walker may never have identified as "Negro." He soon disappeared from the lives of Nella and her mother; she said he had died when she was very young. At this time, Chicago was filled with immigrants but the Great Migration had not begun from the South, and the black population was 1.3% in 1890 and still only 2% in 1910, near the end of her childhood on the South Side.
Her mother Marie married Peter Larsen, a fellow Danish immigrant, by whom she had another daughter, Anna. Nellie took her stepfather's surname, sometimes using versions spelled as Nellye Larson, Nellie Larsen and, finally, settling on Nella Larsen. The mixed family moved west to a mostly white neighborhood of German and Scandinavian immigrants, but encountered discrimination. When Nella was eight, they moved a few blocks back east. The author and critic Darryl Pinckney wrote of her anomalous situation:
"as a member of a white immigrant family, she [Larsen] had no entrée into the world of the blues or of the black church. If she could never be white like her mother and sister, neither could she ever be black in quite the same way that Langston Hughes and his characters were black. Hers was a netherworld, unrecognizable historically and too painful to dredge up."
Most American blacks were from the South, and Larsen had no connection with them.
As a child, Larsen lived for a few years with maternal relatives in Denmark, likely Jutland. While she was unusual in being of mixed race, she had some good memories of that time. Back in Chicago, she attended a large public school. As migration of blacks increased to the city, so did racial segregation and tensions in the immigrant neighborhoods. Her mother believed in education for girls and supported Larsen in attending Fisk University, a historically black university in Nashville, Tennessee. In 1907-08, for the first time Larsen was living within a black community; although she was still separated from most of the students, who were from the South. The biographer George Hutchinson found that she had been expelled for some violation of Fisk's strict dress or conduct codes. Larsen went to Denmark for four years and then returned to the U.S., but struggled to find a place where she could belong.
In 1914, Larsen enrolled in the nursing school at New York City's Lincoln Hospital and Nursing Home. Founded in the nineteenth century in Manhattan as a nursing home to serve blacks, the hospital elements had grown in importance. The total operation had been relocated to a newly constructed campus in the South Bronx. At the time, the hospital patients were primarily white; the nursing home patients were primarily black; the doctors were male and white; and the nurses and nursing students were female and black. As Pinckney writes, "No matter what situation Larsen found herself in, racial irony of one kind or another invariably wrapped itself around her."
Upon graduating in 1915, Larsen went South to work at the Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama, where she became head nurse at its hospital and training school. While at Tuskegee, she was introduced to Booker T. Washington's model of education and became disillusioned with it. As it was combined with poor working conditions for nurses at Tuskegee, Larsen decided to leave after a year or so.
She returned to New York in 1916, where she worked for two years as a nurse at Lincoln Hospital. After earning the second-highest score on a civil service exam, Larsen was hired by the city Bureau of Public Health as a nurse. She worked for them in the Bronx through the 1918 flu pandemic, in "mostly white neighborhoods" and with white colleagues, and afterward.
Marriage and family
In 1919, Larsen married Elmer Imes, a prominent physicist; he was the second African American to receive a PhD in physics. After her marriage, she sometimes used the name Nella Larsen Imes in her writing. A year after her marriage, she published her first short stories.
The couple moved to Harlem in the 1920s, where their marriage and life together had contradictions of class. As Pinckney writes,
"By virtue of her marriage, she was a member of Harlem's black professional class. She and her husband knew the NAACP leadership: W.E.B. Du Bois, Walter White, James Weldon Johnson. However, because of her low birth and mixed parentage, and because she didn't have a college degree, Larsen was alienated from the life of the black middle class, with its emphasis on school and family ties, its fraternities and sororities."
Her mixed parentage was not itself unusual in the black middle class, although many, such as Langston Hughes, had more distant European ancestors. Such African Americans belonged to a mixed-race elite, some of whom had ancestors who were free people of color well before the American Civil War. In the 1920s, people in Harlem were emphasizing their black heritage. The Imes couple were having difficulties by the late 1920s and divorced in 1933.