Nella Larsen went by various names throughout her life. She was born in Chicago, Illinois, on April 13, 1891 as Nellie Walker, the daughter of the Danish immigrant domestic case worker Marie Hanson and Peter Walker, a West Indian man of color from Saint Croix who soon disappeared from her life,. Taking the surname of her Scandinavian stepfather Peter Larsen, she also at times went by Nellye Larson, Nellie Larsen and, finally, Nella Larsen as well as by her married name Nella Larsen Imes.
Larsen lived several years as a child with her mother's relations in Denmark, and in 1907-08, she briefly attended Fisk University, in Nashville, Tennessee, a historically Black University, which at that time had an entirely Black student body. George Hutchinson speculates that she was expelled for some violation of Fisk's very strict dress or conduct codes; she then spent four years in Denmark, before returning to the U.S. 
In 1914, Larsen enrolled in the all-Black nursing school at New York City's Lincoln Hospital. Upon graduating in 1915, she went South to work at the Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama where she became head nurse at a hospital and training school. While in Tuskegee, she came in contact with Booker T. Washington's model of education and became disillusioned with it. (Washington died shortly after Larsen arrived in Tuskeegee.) Working conditions for nurses were poor—their duties included doing hospital laundry—and Larsen lasted only until 1916, at which time she returned to New York to work again as a nurse. However, after working as a nurse through the Spanish flu pandemic, she left nursing and became a librarian.
In 1919, she married Elmer Samuel Imes, a prominent physicist, the second African American to receive a Ph.D in physics. They moved to Harlem, where Larsen took a job at the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library (NYPL). In the year after her marriage, she began to write, publishing her first pieces in...