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The Voice of the Black Community

Local & State

Beyond the Green Book are hidden gems in North Carolina
Safe spaces in Jim Crow South thrive today
 
Published Thursday, March 28, 2019 3:11 am
by Zach Goins | Media Hub

ZACH GOINS | MEDIA HUB
The Magnolia House in Greensboro housed black travelers during the Jim Crow period of forced segregation in the South. It was listed in the Green Book, a guide to safe spaces for African American travelers from 1949 to the mid-1970s.

GREENSBORO – Driving along Gorrell Street, you might miss it. A white and green house sitting on the corner, not really standing out.


But for African Americans traveling through the South during the Jim Crow era, the Magnolia House was once one of the most important buildings in all of Greensboro – a symbol of safety.


Ray Charles stayed there. So did Gladys Knight and Louis Armstrong. Jackie Robinson, too. But the house wasn’t just a haven for the rich and famous, it was a home away from home for so many travelers searching for refuge in the segregated South.


For nearly three decades, from 1949 until the mid-1970s, the house served as one of the few motels in the city that provided lodging for African American guests, forging years of memories and history along the way.


Thanks to the North Carolina African American Heritage Commission’s Green Book Project and the popularity of the film “Green Book,” businesses across the state are now discovering their rich histories. But few are as impressive, nor run quite as deeply as the Magnolia House.


In 1949, Arthur and Louise Gist purchased the Magnolia House and opened it to the public as a 14-room motel. Word spread of the family on Gorrell Street welcoming weary travelers with open arms, and the house quickly became Greensboro’s most highly recommended entry in the Green Book, a travel guide that helped African Americans find safe lodging and avoid racism while navigating unfamiliar areas.


From 1936 to 1976 the Green Book was a staple in any African American’s vehicle – as essential to driving as the car itself. What started as a pamphlet covering the Greater New York City area quickly expanded into a full-blown book, including the Deep South, and eventually, a majority of the country, listing gas stations, restaurants, motels and more. Anywhere African Americans could visit without worrying for their lives.


The Magnolia House’s well-reviewed status in six editions of the Green Book led to it becoming a popular hub in Greensboro for all African Americans, celebrity and non-celebrity alike.


“Our guest list has some pretty prominent folks, and this was their extended stay motel,” said Natalie Pass-Miller, whose father bought the house in 1995. “But whenever you stayed here, whether you were a celebrity or not, it was just a safe place to let your hair down and not feel the pressures of everyday living.”

Since taking over the house, Pass-Miller and her family have been working to restore it to its former glory – emphasizing the preservation of the building’s memories and soul.


The memories are easy to see. The different editions of the Green Book that line the walls, the antique wooden furniture in every room, the photos of former celebrity guests. But the soul, that has to be felt – in the soft jazz echoing up the turning staircase, in the ear-to-ear smile of every worker, and in the welcome hug that Pass-Miller gives every new guest.


“One of the unique things about the motel is that it was very important to the Gist family to make it feel like home,” Pass-Miller said. “For example, Mama Gist heard biscuits with molasses was Louis Armstrong’s favorite snack, so she would always have those things prepared for him when he was here.”


Whether it was making new friends over a shared meal, enjoying the jazz music on the front porch or running with the neighborhood kids in the street, Pass-Miller said guests at the Magnolia House formed their own little community when they visited.


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