The Historic Magnolia House once served as a Green Book site for Black travelers during Jim Crow. (photo by Still Shots Photography/Ashleigh Crawley)
Sam Cooke, the King of Soul, sits in a lounge chair at the Magnolia House, writing music and listening to Motown. He wears a black suit, a white shirt and a mask to protect against COVID-19, which originated almost 60 years after the singer took his last breath in 1964.
That’s because Sam Cooke is actually Lance Vannoi, a student at Dudley High School. And it isn’t the 1960s, but last Friday.
As the Magnolia House prepares to reopen to the public, owner Natalie Miller has gathered donors to see what the building will look like after the pandemic. In each of the five upstairs rooms, actors from the Greensboro community are dressed as stars who stayed at the inn when it operated in the 1950s and ’60s, including Tina Turner, a young Jackie Robinson and Sam Cooke.
About Cooke, Vannoi said, “I didn’t know too much. I’d listened to some of his songs, but I didn’t know all of his background. Getting into it, I started to learn a little bit more.”
The Magnolia House, built in 1889, was a popular destination in The Negro Motorist Green Book, a book Black travelers used to find safe places for them to stay during Jim Crow. In 1949, Gist family bought the house and turned it into an inn.
Of the more than 360 Green Book locations in North Carolina, just four are still in existence.
“Buddy Gist was good friends with Miles Davis, which is how this became a popular place for people to come and stay,” said Gina Hicks, co-owner of Vivid Interiors and one of the designers who worked on revitalizing the Magnolia House. “Buddy Gist was the son, and he told Miles Davis: ‘My parents have this great place. You should come and stay when you’re on the road.’ That’s how it became part of the Green Book.”
The Gist family bought the Magnolia House in 1949. Once the Gist family decided to put the house up for sale, Miller’s father, Samuel Pass, purchased the building in 1995 from them. He had been a child in Greensboro when it operated as an inn.
Now, Miller is continuing her father’s dream of restoring the house into a bed and breakfast.
“I took that on so we could continue restoring the property and be able to open it up, and continue our family legacy,” said Miller. “Our overall mission with the Magnolia House is to honor what it was historically.
“Trying to reopen our doors to generate revenue has been the biggest challenge. We’re reopening in a pandemic,” she continued.
Luckily, most of the steps to reopening have gone smoothly. “The fundraising, we’re doing well,” she said. “Our event was really successful. We had a lot of people come out in support.”
The goal of the fundraiser was to raise $100,000 in order to finish the renovations. Miller is hoping to reopen by the fall.
Hicks and her partner, Laura Mensch, designed each of the five rooms upstairs after individuals who were known to have or might have stayed at the inn. In the Tina Turner and Ruth Brown Room, for example, “We wanted it to be feminine, yet strong and powerful, like these women are,” Hicks said. “So this one has a bolder, deeper pink and magenta.”
As Hicks shows off the designs, two NC A&T students sit at a table in sparkling dresses, having a tea party.
“I definitely learned more about Tina,” said Vayana Henderson, who played Turner. “I did my research on the fashion, the performances, and it was really cool to learn about.
Like Vannoi, Henderson got involved through school.
“Our professor told us that there was an opportunity to volunteer at the Magnolia House and that we could be celebrities for a night,” she said.
Downstairs, the house is decorated mostly in greens, to represent the Green Book. One of the rooms has a wall of celebrities who are known to have stayed at the inn, including Ray Charles, James Baldwin and James Brown.
As the evening goes on, people gather outside for food and live music, the latter introduced by Miller herself. The guests continue to mingle and enjoy the entertainment as the sun sets, 1960s Mowtown playing in the background.