Experience the Historic Magnolia House Once Again
Natalie Miller grew up just around the corner from the Magnolia House in Greensboro, North Carolina. As a girl, she thought the former hotel was just an old rundown house in the Ole Asheboro neighborhood. But to her father Sam Pass, it was something special.
Pass remembered the Magnolia House’s glory days as a hotel and restaurant that catered to Black glitterati of the 1950s and '60s—everyone from Lena Horne and Satchel Paige to James Baldwin and Carter G. Woodson. “When it was a Green Book hotel, my dad was one of the young kids running to see the fancy cars and who were the people getting out to go into the house,” Miller says. Her dad loves telling the story of snagging an autograph from Joe Tex, a Black crossover country music singer. In 1995, Pass bought the house to save it from demolition. When Natalie and her husband Devin Miller reopened the Historic Magnolia House in December 2021 it realized her father’s 30-year dream.
In fall 2022, Historic Magnolia House was inducted as one of the Historic Hotels of America. “This is the first hotel listed in the Green Book inducted into the Historic Hotels of America,” says Stephanie Calhoun, director of member services and support for Historic Hotels. “We are so excited to work with the Pass-Miller family.”
Being a part of this prestigious collection of hotels will make it easier for a new generation of guests to discover Historic Magnolia House and learn about the Black cultural and civil rights legends who stayed there.
Why Historic Magnolia House Matters
While today Black Americans can pretty much go wherever their budget allows, that was not the case in the 1930-60s during the modern Jim Crow era. White restaurant owners, gas station attendants, and hoteliers routinely refused to let Black people eat, use the restroom, or spend the night. Even famous Black people like bandleader Duke Ellington and baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson were not immune from this type of discrimination.
To make traveling while Black easier, a New York City postal carrier named Victor Hugo Green started publishing The Negro Motorist Green Book in 1936. For the first time, Black travelers had a reliable way to find safe hotels and restaurants as they traveled through segregated and sometimes hostile lands.
When proprietors Louise and Arthur Gist opened Magnolia House in 1949, it was just one of a handful of places where Black people traveling between Atlanta and Richmond, Virginia, could stay. Historic Magnolia House first appeared in the Green Book in 1955, and soon became a popular stop for the leading Black entertainers, writers, and athletes of the day.
“The Magnolia House is unique,” says Calhoun. “There are very few of these buildings still standing and being operated as hotels. It's uniting the modern traveler with that point in history.”
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The design team at Vivid Interiors in Greensboro used famous people to inspire the decor of the Historic Magnolia House’s four guest rooms. For instance, the Legends Room, with its deep copper soaking tub, woodsy furnishings, and subtle plaid wallpaper recalls sports greats like baseball player Satchel Paige and boxer Ezzard Charles. The vivid pink Carlotta Room is a tribute to queens of soul who spent time at Magnolia House, including Etta James, Tina Turner, and Aretha Franklin. The name Carlotta comes from the nearby Carlotta Club, a popular venue on what was affectionately known as the Chitlin Circuit.
“What I'm so excited about is how they're integrating names that we know with the actual physical space,” Calhoun says. Historic exhibits and the teal green living room’s guest photo gallery wall help deepen the connection to the past.
“We’re a living museum,” says Miller. “We have exhibits all throughout the house.”
A House With a History
Contractor John Donnell built the home in 1889 and sold it to grocer John Reed and his wife Annie for $1,300, according to an account from Preservation Greensboro. Annie Reed’s son inherited the house and rented it to her parents, as well as to a traveling flour salesman named Daniel Dulany DeButts and his wife, Fannie Sydnor DeButts. In 1914, a road contractor named Plott and his wife bought the house and made several key changes. They expanded it and hired local stone mason Andrew Leopold Schlosser to add the Mount Airy Granite stonework seen in the front porch columns and retaining wall around the yard. A college was nearby, and the Plotts rented out several rooms in the house through the 1930s and '40s.
The 5,000-square-foot Italianate Victorian home was considered a neighborhood showpiece, with its distinctive stonework, beveled glass door, and wraparound porch. It is listed on both the South Greensboro National Register Historic District and the National Register of Historic Places. In a quirk of history, it’s listed as the DeButts house, after the tenant rather than one of the owners.
“It was around World War II the neighborhood changed,” says Calhoun, and Black families started buying homes in the Ole Asheboro neighborhood, now a part of Greensboro’s Southside enclave. To Miller, the house’s most important epoch began in 1949, when Louise and Arthur Gist became the first Black couple to own the house. According to Preservation Greensboro, Arthur was a World War I veteran and brick mason, while Louise was a seamstress. The Gists opened their small hotel not long after acquiring the house. The Green Book first listed Magnolia House in 1955, and it soon became a popular place to stay.
When the Gists bought the home, they enclosed the wraparound porch to create a solarium or sunroom. They also converted a small room off the kitchen. “We haven’t told anybody, [but] they built a small apartment on the side of the house,” Miller says. “During the civil rights era, when Dr. Alvin Blount came out of the military and came home to practice, they housed him in that apartment.” Blount, who died in 2017, was the first chief Black surgeon of a MASH unit during the Korean War.
Pass was determined to remain true to the Magnolia House’s structure and layout in the Green Book days. And Miller, who joined the project to complete it in 2017, shares that philosophy. When the Green Book film starring Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen came out in 2018, that spurred Miller and her husband to finish the restoration and open their doors to guests once again.
Creating Safe Black Spaces
While many revel in the accomplishments of the famous Black guests, Miller liked knowing that those guests got to enjoy downtime at Magnolia House. “The Green Book spaces were safe spaces for all these wonderful Black people,” Miller says. “The really cool part is them just being them and really escaping all the demands outside of Magnolia House.”
Magnolia House hosted a protest etiquette training by Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) conference. She recently learned Magnolia House was a stop for Freedom Riders heading south for voter registration drives in places like Mississippi. Black people could let their guard down and talk freely about important ideas or just relax. "It translated to Louis Armstrong sitting in the ballroom cleaning his trumpet while eating biscuits and Ike and Tina going through unfortunate situations. It translates to them being humans.” Miller says.
Can’t you just imagine the raucous Bid Whist card games and impromptu jam sessions?
Louise Gist was also famous for her biscuits and red-eye gravy, a style infused with strong coffee, in fact Louis Armstrong always ordered biscuit ham sandwiches with molasses.
Today, guests still come to Magnolia House for the food. The hotel hosts not only weddings, juke joint concert nights, but also dinners of catfish, shrimp and grits, or filet mignon and weekend brunches with fried chicken and French toast. In fact, in 2022, Magnolia House was one of 25 small historic restaurants to receive a grant through the National Trust and American Express’s Backing Historic Small Restaurants Program.
“One of the most humbling experiences for me is a lot of my brunchers who come in and recall and share their stories,” says Miller. One man told her about the time he was playing ball in the street, and James Brown came out and joined the game.
Miller says she hopes her Historic Magnolia House Foundation, which is devoted to reigniting communities through living Black history sites like hers, can help Black people appreciate a new facet of their history. “There are these deep roots when you think about these safe Black spaces,” Miller says. “These houses helped contribute to the roots of our history and our civil rights in so many different ways.”
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