The Negro Motorist Green Book, or simply called “The Green Book” was a guidebook published between 1936 and 1966 for African-American travelers. Written and published by a New York mail carrier, Victor Hugo Green, the book listed safe places for dining, lodging and entertainment during the Jim Crow era and served as a kind of modern-day Underground Railroad network for black motorists across the nation. The places listed were the original AirBnB lodgings. Not only were hotels, motels and restaurants listed in the guide, many establishments were homes in modest neighborhoods.
Listed in the Green Book from 1955 to 1961, the Historic Magnolia House was one of the only motels in Greensboro available to black travelers.
Nestled in the Southside neighborhood, The Historic Magnolia House is a gleaming example of turning something old into something new again. Today, operating as a nonprofit, the Magnolia House Foundation seeks to preserve the house which was built in 1889. Past owners Arthur and Louise Gist — parents of Herman Gist, the late state legislator from Greensboro who died in 1994 — bought the home in 1949 and were the first owners to open it up to the community. In addition to offering the house up as a motel as a safe haven for black travelers, the couple also welcomed local groups and activists for weekly meetings.
Presently, guests at The Magnolia House are treated to elegant place settings with cloth napkins, crystal glassware, smooth sounds from a live saxophone player and a small, yet approachable menu. The house is open to the public on Sundays for a jazz brunch. After church services and before evening supper, guests can dine in a number of rooms on the first floor, both indoors and al fresco. This past Sunday it was a lone saxophonist; other Sundays, it’s a three-piece band complete with a bass and blues guitar.
“We aren’t in the business of competing with other restaurants; we are in the businesses of recreating history,” says the Magnolia House’s current owner Natalie Pass-Miller. “This is the one day or the four times a month that the Triad and North Carolinians can be a part of replicating history.”
Shiny hardwood floors, well-appointed tables and photos of famous guests decorate the first floor of the home. The faint scent of magnolia blossoms wafts through the foyer. The menu is simple, yet soulful.
“We serve hearty comfort food,” says Pass-Miller. “It harks back to childhood foods, it will fill you up and make you happy. “
One entrée is the fried fish and grits. Whiting filets are presented in a bowl with creamy, white grits. A chicken breast stuffed with spinach and piquant feta cheese, covered in a thin cream sauce serves as another entree. Pimiento macaroni and cheese with a hint of garlic and the sharp tang of cheddar, is one of the more decadent sides. Dessert changes seasonally but may be a choice of red velvet cake, 7-Up pound cake or lemon cake.
Guests come dressed in their Sunday best. The good church shoes that only see the light of day once a week scuffle across the floor. It feels elegant to sit and dine in this space. It feels like being a part of history.
Pass-Miller says she is working to turn the building, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, into a museum. She hopes to tell the history of the house and eventually reopen rooms to accommodate overnight guests. The goal is to restore and maintain the house as a historic motel. Sharing bits and pieces of historical stories and experiences of the African-American community will add to the tourism experience just like in days of yore.
“Every part of The Historic Magnolia House’s operations is intentional, to continue the legacy of the Gist family when they owned it during its Green Book heydays,” Pass-Miller says. “As we continue to learn more and more about the stories within the walls of the Magnolia House, what we have grown to realize is that Mama Gist worked hard to create a truly safe environment not only due to Jim Crow.
“All proceeds outside of what is needed to run the Sunday operation goes back into the repairs and completing the restoration work,” continues Pass-Miller.