GREENSBORO, N.C. — Natalie Pass Miller loved her life in Atlanta working for the corporate sector.
While on a visit back home in 2018, a casual conversation with her dad changed everything.
Sam Pass, at one time a fire and safety specialist at Duke University, had spent the past two decades of his off time meticulously restoring the Historic Magnolia House Motel.
The segregation-era place was a beacon to African Americans looking for a night’s sleep between Atlanta and Richmond, Va. Ike and Tina Turner, Ray Charles, Lena Horne, the Five Blind Boys of Alabama and baseball greats Jackie Robinson and Satchel Paige all slept there as they traveled the East Coast.
Neighbors swore that the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, sometimes joined neighborhood children playing baseball in the streets.
Then, years later, the corner property with the large magnolia trees stood largely in anonymity — a shadow of its former self — before Pass, a neighborhood kid, took the first steps of bringing it back to life in 1996.
Over time, though, his pace slowed.
“He was tired,” Pass Miller said of her dad, who was nearing 70. “He had put so much into it and it was tough traveling back and forth from Duke University and still working on this. I said, ‘Dad, you know what? Why don’t we do this.’”
So Pass Miller packed up her life and moved back to a city she hadn’t lived since attending college at N.C. A&T.
“It’s what you do,” Pass Miller said.
The nurse whose passion took her into a health care and information technology career walked Magnolia’s floors with a new objectivity, as she assessed what still needed to be done.
“It’s just too special for it to be just sitting there,” Pass Miller said.
The Magnolia House, which is in the shadow of Bennett College, had slowly started to become its old self again thanks to the vision of Pass Miller’s father. Not yet ready as a bed-and-breakfast, the Magnolia had foot traffic, including Sunday jazz brunches and private events.
Now, Pass Miller’s days are full of planning and networking to finish the remaining interior work to get the place fully operational.
As Pass Miller has immersed herself in sharing the stories the Magnolia holds as a way of building community support, her own life has taken on new meaning.
“The Magnolia talks to me,” said Pass Miller, as she climbed its grand stairs.
* * *
The Magnolia is listed on page 44 of the 1955 edition of the “The Green Book” — the state-by-state listing of safe places Black people could stay overnight while traveling through the segregated South.
The motel, with its two porches, 14 rooms that barely fit more than a bed and 5,000 square feet, earned the “highly recommended place to stay” distinction.
“You imagine a time in the 1950s when people would have been driving or taking the train and they’d arrive dressed to the nines,” said Benjamin Briggs, executive director of Preservation Greensboro, which works to save the community’s historic and architectural treasures.
“The women would be wearing amazing clothes and gloves, and men would have hats and overcoats and everyone would have nice shoes,” Briggs said. “That’s how people traveled back then.”
At the same time, Briggs says he doesn’t want to “gold coat” the history of segregation, when Black people often had to sleep in their cars and use the bathroom at the side of the road.
“It was a horrible period in American history,” Briggs said of the challenges for Blacks to travel. “(The Magnolia House) showed the determination that people had to overcome the obstacles put in their place by the legal system. It is a symbol of overcoming obstacles.”
The Magnolia House was built in 1889 as a six-bedroom private residence for the Plott family during a time when whites resided on parts of Gorrell Street.
The Italianate-style house had always stood out among the Queen Anne-style homes on the block, with its square towers, tall windows and overhanging eaves.
By the end of World War II, African Americans occupied most of Gorrell.
Arthur and Louise Gist bought the house in 1949 and converted it into a 14-room bed-and-breakfast, with sitting rooms and a dining room downstairs. Arthur Gist was a bricklayer. Sons Herman, a future state legislator, and Arthur “Buddy” Gist Jr., a future protege of blues man Miles Davis, grew up there.
Carter Goodson, one of the first scholars to study African-American history, stayed a week.
Jazz icon Louis Armstrong supposedly favored the country ham biscuits slathered in black molasses.
Couples honeymooned at the Magnolia. Parents from out of town stayed there during Bennett and A&T graduations. Entertainers, who might have been booked in the area or just passing through, were often listed on the marquee.
“I used to look at that and I’d say to myself, ‘one of these days,’” storyteller Logie Meachum, who grew up in Greensboro, once said of riding the school bus by the motel with his face pressed against the window. “I wanted to be good enough to be on the Magnolia marquee.’’
As Black people won the right to stay where they wanted while traveling, the bed-and-breakfast eventually found new life as a rooming house.
Arthur Gist died, and the family closed the business in 1980. Vagrants took over, leaving trash and drug paraphernalia behind.
It sat without purpose for nearly two decades, until 1996, when Sam Pass imagined what could be once again.
“When Mrs. Gist put out the For Sale sign, I put it in my car and drove to her house,” said Pass, who lived around the corner.
* * *
Having just retired from a 25-year career at FedEx, Pass invested $70,000 of his family’s money. It would take a long time for Pass to convince the city and public to get involved.
“My dad is very much a visionary,” Pass Miller said.
Pass envisioned the Magnolia — “The House That Soul Built” — as a living museum within a bed-and-breakfast. He remembered meeting soul singer Joe Tex on the front porch at age 13 during one of his many missions to see who was the latest person to make the marquee.
“I can see him running back and forth,” Pass Miller said.
The first phase of work stabilized the house, Pass said, by “replacing every piece of dead wood in the structure.”
The restoration effort won two grants of about $110,000. About $30,000 came from A&T, which was working to revitalize the Gorrell Street area.
Preservation Greensboro gave Pass and the project a Preservation Award in 2011.
“It just needed to be loved,” Pass said of the building.
Pass mostly followed the original blueprint and the changes Arthur Gist made.
The house’s original wraparound porch has been partially closed in and is now a solarium. The foundation, steps, five chimneys and a low wall around two sides of the property are made of granite quarried in Mount Airy.
Inside, pocket doors lead to a downstairs parlor.
A huge antique tub is in a bathroom.
Period pieces were donated.
“My father did so much. He did what he was supposed to do,” Pass Miller said. “I’m ready.”
* * *
Pass Miller had been back for two months last year when “Green Book” hit movie theaters, winning the Oscar for best picture and instantly raising the restoration project’s visibility.
“That was the moment that ... I had to digest what the hell I had in my hand,” Pass Miller said.
As a child, she helped her dad on the weekends, when he parked his mobile kitchen near Bennett College and served up hot dogs and platters of chicken, fish and ribs to raise funds and attention.
But she was just 10. She really didn’t know the history of Magnolia.
“As a young girl, I wanted to play with my friends,” Pass Miller said. “I went to college and then I was gone.”
After the conversation with her father, Pass Miller tried to run the operation from Atlanta for the first year. It wasn’t easy.
She needed to be here.
Two months after arriving, her father suffered a stroke.
Pass has since worked his way back to health and back to work.
“It was a blessing to be here,” Pass Miller said.
When she got to Greensboro, about 15 percent of the work remained inside.
She is still working to secure funding.
“I definitely feel that energy,” Pass Miller says of walking through and imagining the conversations and laughter that likely permeated the floors.
During the 1950s, the NAACP held meetings and tutorials there — “etiquette if you are going to be marching and protesting,” Pass Miller said.
“What really blows me away is when the community comes in now to hold meetings, I’m sitting here looking at them thinking this is a version of what went down back then,” Pass Miller said. “It urges me to go on.”
Pass says his daughter reminds him of his mother, Myrtle, who worked in the kitchen at UNCG’s infirmary. A single mother, she ran the neighborhood council and kept her children busy.
“She is an alpha female,” he says of his daughter’s strength and focus. It’s one of the reasons he thinks she will finish what he started.
Pass Miller lets out a sigh and smile upon hearing that.
“That sounds like my dad,” Pass Miller said.
Early on, she decided that finished portions of the building needed period furniture. So she found a small shop with the kind of pieces that would have been in homes and motels at that time. Pass Miller had workers load the furniture in a U-Haul, which she drove from Atlanta.
“I was scared to death driving all the way from Atlanta to here,” she said.
When she arrived in Greensboro, she went by Magnolia and found her father on the porch. He knew she was coming to town — but not manning a U-Haul packed with furniture.
“I will never forget the expression on his face,” Pass Miller said with a laugh of both his amazement and amusement. “I don’t know if I’ll do that again.”
They have learned to agree to disagree on some of her decisions. Sam Pass never wanted to go into debt to do the work. However, his daughter sees it as a way to “get out of the gate and sustain yourself.”
“It’s interesting because we come from two different times and his style and way of doing things absolutely makes sense,” Pass Miller said. “But sometimes the question is, is that concept something that can be applied to today’s business world.”
She is building community support in a way that her father has for a long time — by getting people into Magnolia.
“I bring them here and share the story with them so that they can be part of the space,” she said.
To help raise money, the place is available for booking.
A “Juke Joint at the Magnolia” series offers performances and a meal.
Pass Miller says there is space for so much more.
People will find her father walking through brunch and greeting guests. Or on his tractor in the backyard.
“I very much want my father to be here,” Pass Miller said, “to see what I’m doing to carry on his vision.”