You are working on a book called Hospitality Historiography. Tell us a bit about the book and what motivated you to write this piece?
I like to call Hospitality Historiography, a book thirty years in the making because it began during my graduate studies at Cornell University Hotel School in 1992-1993.
During my second year in the program, the National Society of Minority Hoteliers (NSMH)was planning to host their first conference. One of the society’s founders and chairman, asked if I would be interested in researching the history of Black hotel ownership, and develop a presentation to share with the conference attendees. Wow, of course! I became so intrigued by the subject matter that it evolved into my graduate monograph titled, “Hospitality Historiography: An African American Perspective.”
I filtered through hundreds of old articles in newspapers, magazines, and periodicals, including some on microfiche, dating back to the mid-1800s. The original monograph was about 100 pages and delved into Black experiences in hospitality including contributions in catering, hotel/motel, and resort ownership. Once completed, the monograph was nicely printed in a black binder with gold lettering on the front and was unseen for decades.
Fast forward to 2021, when I stumbled on the monograph while cleaning out some boxes. A friend of mine happened to witness my discovery and inquired about the piece. She was taken aback to learn that African Americans owned hotels in the early1900s; she grabbed the monograph and began reading. She finally looked up at me and said, “Is this going to be a book?” And I replied, “Yes, it will be.” And the rest is Black history. So here we are.
During your deep dive into the history of how African Americans shaped and contributed to the hospitality industry—did you discover anything surprising or unusual?
The first story in the book began in the 1770’s with Rachael Pringle Polgreen, the first woman of color to own a hotel/tavern called the Royal Navy Hotel in Bridgetown, Barbados. Thereafter, the book takes us through a history of Black hotel ownership through the Jim Crow Era, the Harlem Renaissance Era of the 1920s-1930s, and the Civil Rights era of the 1960s.
There were several surprising revelations that I encountered during my research, a couple of which stand out to me. The first was the number of African American women who owned hotels, including Annie Box, the proprietress of the Mountain View Hotel located in Oracle, Arizona; Madame Sara Spencer Washington owner of the Brigantine Hotel on Brigantine Island, NJ; and Maggie M. Steed who built the first hotel in Paducah, Kentucky owned and operated by an African American woman. When Adam Blake Jr. owner of the Kenmore Hotel in Albany, NY died prematurely at the young age of 51,his wife Catherine successfully operated the Kenmore for the next seven years, still under her husband’s name.
Second, a huge eye-opener for me was the number of African American millionaire hoteliers that were virtually unknown to mainstream America including Robert Reed Church Sr., first Black millionaire hotelier of the South; Dana D.A. Dorsey, Miami’s first African American millionaire; Alonzo G. Wright, the first African American millionaire in the city of Cleveland, Ohio; and Madame Sara Spencer Washington, one of America’s first African American female millionaires.
You must have come across many stories that inspired you. How do you think the stories in this piece will inspire and resonate with others?
How could these stories not inspire or resonate with others? Many of the hospitality pioneers highlighted in Hospitality Historiography were former slaves; and these Black entrepreneurs were able to accomplish the unimaginable, erect and operate thriving hotels, during the most challenging periods for African Americans in this nation. The entrepreneurial achievements of African Americans in this book may be difficult for people to wrap their heads around because they fly in the face of everything most people have read about Black history. These entrepreneurs’ focus, perseverance, and determination to develop hotels for their race because they couldn’t stay in white-owned hotels, will inspire anyone, regardless of race, religion or origin.
The period you described appears to have been a thriving era for Black hotel entrepreneurship. What happened to the properties discussed in the book?
The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson, ended segregation in public spaces and banned employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Since African Americans were now able to stay wherever they pleased, many of the Black-owned properties lost their relevance and were abandoned and eventually went under. Many of them were razed or repurposed into senior housing, while some still sit on empty lots. While some Black-owned properties are still around, such as the Magnolia House in Greensboro, NC, most of them have been replaced by office buildings or other facilities. However, the numerous plaques and markers that stand in the spaces formerly occupied by these once-celebrated Black-owned hotels, motels and resorts, are reminders that Black history is prevalent and integral to our nation’s history.
What are your thoughts on Black hotel entrepreneurship today? Do you see the impact African Americans have on the hospitality industry today?
The National Association of Black Hotel Owners, Operators and Developers (NABHOOD) partnered with travel, tourism, and hospitality research company, MMGY Global to conduct the U.S. Black Traveler Study, which revealed that Black Americans spent $109.4billion on domestic travel in 2019, and nearly $20 billion more on travel abroad.
According to NABHOOD, a miniscule 2% of U.S. hotels are under Black ownership. Which means that travel dollars, regardless of their source, rarely end up in the hands of African Americans. However, over the last couple of years, the tide has started to shift as more African Americans get involved in hotel ownership. Hotel companies like Wyndham and Choice have launched programs to spur Black hotel ownership, and some African American hotel proprietors such as Davonne Reaves of the Vonne Group, are offering workshops to teach aspiring Black hotel owner show to buy and invest in hotels.
In summary, things are moving in the right direction, but we still have a lot of work to do.
What takeaways do you hope readers will have from this piece? What are the biggest lessons/ learnings?
I wrote Hospitality Historiography to enlighten people and to correct what many have learned in history books and popular culture about the African American experience and our impact on the hospitality industry. One of the biggest learnings I hope that people take away is that African Americans have made significant contributions to the hospitality industry, and that their impact on hospitality started in the late 18th century. African Americans’ imprint on the hospitality industry is undeniable. You cannot explore American history without acknowledging Black history. People need to hear the whole story.
About Calvin Stovall
Calvin Stovall is a keynote speaker, author and hospitality historian with ICONIC Presentations, LLC. He has nearly 30 years of experiencein the hospitality and non-profit service industries. Calvin isa native Chicagoan and began his hospitality career as a front desk clerk atthe Holiday Inn City Centre in downtown Chicago. During his hospitality career as vice president of brand marketing with Hilton Worldwide, he was responsible for the marketing and public relations efforts for more than 150 Homewood Suites hotels. While under his leadership, the Homewood Suites brand was recognized four times by J.D. Power and Associates. Calvin’s enthusiasm and immeasurable passion for Black history has continued throughout his adult years. Today, he leverages his life experiences as a business leader along with his expertise as a hospitality historian to engage and connect with audiences nationwide. Calvin earned his bachelor’s degree in Business Administration at Chicago State University, and his Masters from Cornell University School of Hotel Administration in Ithaca, NY. Calvin currently resides in Mooresville, NC with his two teenage sons, Caden and Carson.
Hospitality Historiography by Calvin Stovall
Excerpt from Chapter 3 - Black Hoteliers at the Turn of the Century.
Five Points, Denver Colorado’s “Harlem of the West” & The Rossonian Hotel
Five Points experienced a huge influx of African American residents during the1890s. But during the 1920s, as the Denver housing market boomed, the section became predominately Black. Discriminatory housing practices kept Denver’s Black residents segregated in Five Points. By 1929, about 5,500 of Denver’s7,000 Blacks lived in the area, which was home to a growing district of Black businesses along Welton Street. In the first half of the 20th century, Five Points became known as the "Harlem of the West".
Opened in 1912, The Baxter Hotel was located on Welton Street at the Five Points intersection. The property was owned by Robert Y. Baxter and catered to a white-only clientele. In 1929, the three-story, triangular shaped and Beaux-Arts style property came under Black management and was renamed the Rossonian, after manager A.W.L. Ross. Ross was an attorney and newspaper publisher associated with the hotel throughout the 1930s.
The Rossonian was one of the most prominent structures in the Five Points neighborhood.
During the Rossonian’s heyday (1929-1945), the Denver Black community was socially, residentially, and commercially segregated from the majority population.The Rossonian became a jazz entertainment hub in the Five Points neighborhood. African American musicians visiting Denver to perform were not allowed to stay at downtown hotels and ended up at the Rossonian. As a result, the first floor Rossonian Lounge became the most vibrant jazz club between Kansas City and Los Angeles. Enroute to other cities, during their off nights, between concerts at larger venues downtown, or later sets after they finished performing at other clubs, famous jazz musicians returned to the hotel for jam sessions. Among the list of famous hotel guests were Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, and Ella Fitzgerald. The lounge became such a hot spot that it attracted white patrons from other parts of the city. By the 1950s, the lounge’s clientele was primarily white because they could afford to pay the cover charge.
Following World War II, racial discrimination in Denver began to wane, including discrimination in hotel accommodations and housing. By the late 1950s, African Americans entertainers coming to the city had more hotel options to select from and were no longer forced to stay in Five Points. In addition, racially restrictive housing covenants were lifted allowing middle-class Blacks to move to other communities in Denver, notably Park Hill, and the outlying suburbs.
The Rossonian could no longer count on the patronage of famous Black entertainers because they were able to find accommodations closer to their engagements. The Rossonian Lounge saw a plunge in customers. By the 1960s, the Five Points neighborhood experienced a steady decline in population and wealth, leaving area businesses in turmoil and many properties abandoned.
The Rossonian changed hands several times in the following years with various renovations and upgrades, but the property was never able to recapture the glory of its heyday. Some entrepreneurs made attempts to restore the property, but they were unsuccessful. By 1973, the building was appraised at only $70,000. The Rossonian was boarded up and abandoned.
Years after the Rossonian closed, the Rossonian and the Five Points neighborhood began to be recognized for their historic significance. In 1995, the Rossonian was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and in 2002, Welton Street became a Denver historic cultural district. Later, the neighborhood became the Five Points Historic Cultural District.
Redevelopment plans for the boarded-up Rossonian gained steam in the 2010s, as business activity and construction picked up in Five Points. In 2014, plans were underway to erect a luxury hotel and condominium complex at the Rossonian. The project received a $150,000 grant from the Denver Office of Economic Development, raising the total amount of public funds invested in the hotel since 1986 to more than $3 million. As of late 2022, Palisade and its partners are planning on developing a restaurant, jazz club and hotel, all while still honoring the history of the neighborhood.