History speaks wherever one sits inside the lovingly restored Black landmark home on Gorrell Street minutes from downtown Greensboro, North Carolina. For the first time in more than half a century, guests can spend the night at The Historic Magnolia House. Their stay will wrap them in the warmth of a boutique hotel that once welcomed Black travelers shut out of white establishments by Jim Crow laws and practices.
“I have the best front-row seat in the house because I am sitting here every day continuing to learn more and more about the history and stories within these walls. I’m just a steward of the house. It is the house that has the stories,” says Natalie Miller, owner of The Historic Magnolia House.
“It’s up to myself and my team to make sure that we share those stories and educate the community. That is why it is so important to complete the work that we are doing.”
Preserving Past Glory
The stories come from the people who witnessed the comings and goings of the impressive celebrity guests who once stayed at the Green Book hotel listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Miller sees the preservation and celebration of the landmark her duty.
The grand opening in January renewed the interest in the hotel from in-town visitors and out-of-state travelers. “Opening the hotel has been huge for us, and that’s what has allowed us to accomplish our mission of becoming a 100% replica of the Green Book hotels from 1949.”
World War I veteran and New York City mailman Victor H. Green created and published The Negro Motorist Green Book for 30 years, from 1936 to 1966. The guidebook provided vital information to Black travelers looking for accommodations, restaurants, gas stations and stores that welcomed people of color during America’s decades of segregation.
The Magnolia House Motel, as it was once called, appeared in six Green Book editions. After her father, Samuel Pass, completed 85 percent of the work necessary to structurally replicate the historic hotel, Miller took over the renovation. “When I think about my own bloodline of African American pioneers and their contributions to North Carolina’s Black history, it’s what you do, what you’re supposed to do. I’m motivated and fueled by just what the house represents,” she says.
In 1995, Pass bought the dilapidated house built in 1889 as a single-family residence. Former owners, the Gist family, purchased the property in 1949 and established it as a house where African American actors, writers, musicians, speakers and activists could find a safe haven while traveling to Greensboro.
Some of the Black megastars who stayed there are still famous names today. They include Gladys Knight, Tina Turner, Ray Charles, James Brown, Sam Cooke, Miles Davis, James Baldwin, Carter G. Woodson, Satchel Paige and Jackie Robinson and more.
“Daddy, he was one of the little kids who would run up and down the street with neighborhood kids,” says Miller. “He would be the one that would be looking to see what fancy car was pulling up or who was on the porch that maybe he could get an autograph from.” She and her dad grew up down the street from the Magnolia House located in South Greensboro National Register Historic District.
Miller created The Historic Magnolia House Foundation in 2018 to raise money to save the neighborhood treasure. “We worked with a lot of good community partners and sponsors to raise funds through the foundation for the preservation work that has been done. We had over $100,000 worth of repairs and restoration work that was required, so seeing the community come together behind Magnolia was absolutely an amazing experience.”
She and her dad’s devotion to restoring Magnolia House’s swag have delivered a living piece of history. It is now one of the few Green Book sites that can still give today’s travelers the experience of Black Southern hospitality from the 1950s.
“We’ve reunited the home back with its community. Being able to restore not only the structural layout but also how it functioned back then, that’s what really makes it special,” Miller says.
Traveling Back in Time
The current owner of The Historic Magnolia House relishes the vibe guests and visitors get when they walk in and see the vibrant colors, wooden staircase and rich history. Miller describes the feeling. “You walk into it, and you feel like James Baldwin did when he walked into that side door to come to stay. It has this mid-century modern theme to it. It’s got a lot of bold colors that really kind of reflect the personalities and the era of those historical guests and musicians that stayed with us,” she says.
For Miller, it is more than the look of Magnolia House. It is also the way the Gist family promoted a welcoming, relaxed atmosphere where celebrated guests and regular folk could be themselves. “That translated into James Brown playing ball outside in the street with the kids or going to find local musicians to play with him instead of bringing a band.
“That translated into Louis Armstrong sitting in the ballroom and cleaning his trumpet when he stayed three weeks at a time. It just really captured the human side. African American travelers today that come visit us, they’re really retracting the footprints of those things happening.”
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The landmark’s owner chose Vivid Interiors to achieve her vision of the hotel’s four guest suites, restaurant, business event spaces and celebratory gathering places. The local, female-owned firm gained inspiration from “Sylvie’s Love,” the 2020 Amazon Studios movie.
Miller asked the design team to watch the love story set in 1950s Harlem. Vivid captured the mood of that time, from the splashes of green downstairs to the themed guest rooms paying tribute to the past. “It’s just a completely different experience as you go into each room. We’re trying to capture that historical personality of the home, and then, of course, honor our past guests,” Miller says.
The bold pink Carlotta room pays tribute to the Queens of Soul who stayed at Magnolia House. The Baldwin room’s black and white palette is dedicated to the writers and other intellectuals who were guests. The elegant, masculine décor in the Legends room honors sports greats who spent time there.
The Kind of Blue room celebrates the close friendship between the past owners’ son, Buddy Gist, and famed jazz musician Miles Davis. It also pays tribute to the trumpeter’s celebrated studio album, “Kind of Blue,” recorded in 1959.
During the pandemic, rebuilding The Historic Magnolia House for overnight stays became a priority for Miller. Before the COVID outbreak, she planned to first develop the hotel’s museum, education and art programs. It was already used to host events and teach home’s historical importance before the pandemic closures in 2020. Deliveries of shoebox lunches and Sunday brunch kept the history lessons going through last year.
Sunday Brunch and Shoe Box Lunches
Echoes of the Sunday brunch made famous back in Magnolia House’s glory days resonate in the dishes coming out of the current bed and breakfast kitchen. “The Sunday brunch, which we just reopened a couple of weeks ago, really does capture the historical elements of Mama Gist feeding the Green Book hotel guests when they came downstairs in the morning,” Miller details.
“Mama Gist was known for her biscuits and red-eye gravy. We try to stay true, in terms of our menu selection, to representing and honoring the Mama Gist style of cuisine.”
Miller admits that Magnolia House’s red-eye gravy is still a work in progress, but the biscuits are on point. Chef Derrick Robertson’s fish and grits are popular with brunch enthusiasts, and the new mac and cheese fritters with a sweet potato reduction could soon gain a following.
The culinary team’s greatest challenge is balancing the tradition of Mama Gist’s southern soul food dishes with the preferences of modern day, health-conscious diners.
Sunday brunch is open to the public. Miller considers it another opportunity to expand the hotel’s primary purpose of celebrating and sharing Black history.
“We have people coming in when they are traveling through from all over the world. They’ll extend their time so they can come through for brunch, tour and experience the house.”
The bed and breakfast proprietor recalls one of many occasions when property’s history became part of a family’s table conversation. “We were talking about what the Green Book is and the Black traveler, and this young kid asked the parents, ‘I couldn’t stay in a hotel if I were living back then?’”
The Shoe Box Lunch & Learn program is another vehicle for sharing Magnolia House’s Green Book past and other aspects of Black history with students, families and companies. The lunches delivered before and during the pandemic came with a side of knowledge about the to-go meals African Americans carried during Jim Crow days. They might go hungry otherwise because of racial restrictions on where they could eat.
Miller remembers getting a call from one of her customers who fed her family with five shoebox lunches. “They sat down at the table for dinner and talked about all the Black history on the box, and how meaningful that conversation was.”
In the past, the shoebox lunches usually consisted of nonperishable foods, such as fried chicken, fruit and vegetables and pound cake. The hotel’s updated versions are packaged in signature shoe boxes for takeout or delivery. Community organizations and corporate offices can also order the meals.
Creating New Memories at The Historic Magnolia House
“Everything we do is very intentional. We are making sure what we do aligns with the historical function of the house or some learning opportunity as it relates to the African American traveler back during Jim Crow,” says Miller. That holds true for events, celebrations and meetings held at the 100 percent replica of a functioning Green Book hotel.
The rooms or the entire house can be booked for special occasions, such as weddings. Miller sees the clients who book corporate meetings and business conferences as guests recreating the hotel’s historic purpose. “They are recreating the time when the Congress of Racial Equity hosted protest meetings at the house. Or when we co-hosted the NAACP’s national conferences in Greensboro.”
Starting in February, Magnolia House will open its juke joint in time to commemorate Black History Month with live performances on Thursday nights. Scheduled artists include Mo’ Soul, Galentine’s Brunch and Demola The Violinist.
The hotel’s music education programming, Black concerts and tribute shows support today’s musical and artistic talent. “That’s a way to capture the cultural vibes of artists and musicians that were with us in the past,” Miller says.
Building On Black History and Culture
Miller’s mission for The Historic Magnolia House stretches beyond Greensboro. She wants to raise awareness about the need to preserve more Black historic sites and increase the number included among the 96,000 properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
“That is important to me because if there is a building and it’s sitting there, the first thing we want to do is demolish it. We want to slap a parking lot on it or a modern day apartment. That isn’t always the right answer.”
Collecting oral histories is one strategy that could help save structures significant to the African American experience. Printed documents on Black history are more difficult to obtain. The home’s oral history program will be unveiled at a later date.
“That actually folds into the next phase we are gearing up for, which is the actual build-out and development of our Black history museum and art center. That is where the oral histories will live. That’s going to allow us to expand our platform and be able to honor other historic sites like Magnolia,” says Miller.
The hotelier flashes back to a personal experience with oral history. She tells a story about a conversation she had with her father after assuming responsibility for finishing the restoration project. “He’s like this is your great-uncle Samuel Penn. He was the first Black police officer here in Greensboro.” Nonchalantly, he listed family achievers who made significant contributions to their communities and North Carolina.
“Here’s your great-great-grandfather, Jefferson Davis Diggs, who founded what is today Winston Salem State University. And he’s just rolling this stuff off his tongue, right? I’m just like, ‘Wait. Stop. What? Do you understand what you’re saying? Give me a minute to digest,” Miller recounts.
Until that moment, Miller had not heard about her family’s legacy of activism. She attributes that to being young and focused on college, career and other interests. “It’s this tunnel vision that we get and don’t stop to open ourselves up, pay attention and really learn where we come from. That’s where the true impact comes from, to be honest with you.”
The special bond with her father and their passion for preserving and sharing Black history saved Magnolia House. Miller plans to stay fired up about the stories that influenced her family’s path and the historical tapestries of other African Americans. “I would think most activists or anybody that is making an impact in the community or in the world is driven by some information that is personal to them or something that has impacted them and fueled them to do it.”
Go to blackpast.org to look up Black landmarks located in your state. You can also learn more about endangered Black historic sites from the African American Historic Preservation Foundation’s website.