Photo Credit: Photo credit: The Historic Magnolia House
One of America's Oldest Black-Owned Motels Reopens in North Carolina
For hotel owner Natalie Pass-Miller, preserving Black history is something that must be done. When she and her husband reacquired the Historic Magnolia House hotel in 2018, there was no question if they’d reopen.
“When we think about Black historic spaces and Black historic preservation, we are truly a minority in that whole space,” Pass-Miller said. “Any opportunity to save something of this significance it’s just what you do.”
Her father had purchased the bed and breakfast from the Gist family in 1995. However, the hotel’s roots ran back to 1949 when it reigned as the Greenbook Hotel. As a safe haven for Black travelers commuting across the southern United States, the hotel accommodated some of Black culture’s most iconic stars.
Now, the Pass-Miller family is breathing new life into one of the oldest Black-owned hotels in the US. Steeped in nostalgia and brewed in Black excellence, the Historic Magnolia House Motel is exactly what travelers have been needing.
Preserving Black Legacy
When the Greenbook Hotel opened in 1949, lodging for Black travelers was limited. Jim Crow laws and sundown towns made Black travel unsafe. With few options, the Greenbook Hotel became a hub for African Americans looking for a warm bed after a long journey.
Over the years, the hotel had many names, including the Magnolia House Motel and Daniel D.Debutts House. However, it stayed true to being a refuge for travelers of color. It was a hotspot for Black celebrities, like James Baldwin, Ray Charles, and Tina Turner.
“It was the place to be,” she said. “Even for our historic celebrity guests who stayed with us, this was their safe place to let their hair down and to be who they are, while getting away from the hustle and demands of what Jim Crow era was for Black folks.”
After 10 months of renovations, Pass-Miller says the goal was to always remain true to the essence of the Black traveler. The hotel maintains its mid-century, modern charm while providing top-tier accommodations for guests. She could feel the house’s welcoming charm when it reopened in January 2022.
“One of the biggest feelings I felt after completing the project was humbling, and it felt like the house said ‘thank you,’” she said.
Intentionally Honoring History
With memories of Louis Armstrong playing his trumpet while eating biscuits and Ray Charles playing in the street with local kids, the Pass-Miller family has been intentional about honoring the hotel’s history. Subtle touches can be seen throughout the property. The decor and style pay homage to the creativity and activism that was housed there.
When they were taking care of celebrity guests, the hotel hosted sit-in etiquette classes, so that Greensboro locals would know protest safety. They also were the catalyst for the desegregation of public pools in the city. Pass-Miller said being intentional about showcasing the property’s history is a big part of the hotel’s branding.
“This space was a space of activism on many different levels,” she said.
Food was another major part of the Historic Magnolia Hotel’s legacy. With Chef Yancey Williams spearheading the on-site restaurant, Pass-Miller says they are building upon a solid foundation of Southern cuisine and hospitality.
“Mama Gist would be very upset with us if we did not pay tribute to how she treated her guests and how she fed her guests when travelers were coming through,” she said.
A Month With Miles
During the month of August, the Historic Magnolia Hotel will be paying tribute to the anniversary of Miles Davis’ Kinda Blue album. According to Pass-Miller, Davis was a good friend of the original owner’s son, Buddy Gist. Davis gifted Buddy with his trumpet following the release of his Kinda Blue album. This month, the hotel pays tribute to their friendship and Davis’ musical geniosity.
Every month the hotel will host a musical event celebrating the musical guests who walked the halls of the historic bed and breakfast. Pass-Miller says she is proud to be a part of its rich legacy and believes her family’s work sets the stage for future Black hoteliers.
“We’re setting the stage for that next generation and that next generation needs to be extremely diverse and inclusive,” she said “In the hospitality industry as a whole, with us being the minority in the business, we have every right … to have a seat at that table and invest in the economy.”