Creating an Oasis in Inner City or Desert
The New York Times, 1998
WHEN Jackie Mullins suggested to her husband, Houston, that they celebrate their sixth wedding anniversary in East St. Louis, Ill., a largely black city known for its social problems, he didn't think there would be much worth seeing there. Gradually, she persuaded him, and the couple came up from Memphis and signed in at the Parker Garden Bed and Breakfast, a 1912 Tudor-style home owned by Herrett and John Parker.
There the Mullinses ate homemade honey-nut wheat bread and omelets for breakfast, and relaxed in a whirlpool bath. Mr. Parker, a game enthusiast, taught them how to play mancala, an ancient African board game somewhat like Chinese checkers. And they got the real flavor of St. Louis from their hosts, who drove the couple past blues clubs; the Trans World Dome, where the Rams play football; Busch Stadium, home to Mark McGwire; the St. Louis Black History Museum and the Black Repertory Theater, and the flamboyantly colored pink and lime-green historic houses of Lafayette Square, with their turn-of-the-century French styling.
At first, Ms. Mullins said, her husband just went along because she had planned the trip, but he fell in love with their hosts. ''He really liked the way they treated us,'' she said. ''He has been telling everybody about Parker Garden and East St. Louis -- his co-workers, everybody. He won't stop.''
Parker Garden, barely a year old, is one of a growing number of bed-and-breakfasts owned by African-Americans, many in inner-city neighborhoods. The success of the B & B's, often in the face of skeptical neighbors and associates, surprises many people, who expect such areas to be overwhelmed by poverty and crime.
''This is changing the way people look at our communities,'' said Monique Greenwood, who, with her husband, Glenn Pogue, operate Akwaaba Mansion in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. ''People are saying, 'This is what this neighborhood is really about.' It is like an awakening.''
Within the last two years, 11 inns owned by African-Americans have opened, bringing the national total to 30, according to the African American Association of Innkeepers International, a group formed to increase public awareness of black-owned inns and to help aspiring innkeepers get started. A decade ago, there were fewer than 10 inns owned by African-Americans, out of an estimated 30,000 across the country.
Not all the new B & B's are in inner cities; some have sprung up in less urban destinations, like in Canoncito, N.M., and on Martha's Vineyard, Mass. On the Vineyard, Doris Clark, owner of the Twin Oaks Inn, is known for her homemade granola, which she says she sent to President Clinton during his August stay on the island.
Ms. Clark, who is the president of the African American Association of Innkeepers International, said that the practice of charging room rates for guests in one's home and serving them breakfast was popular in the African-American community long before the current trend.
''It's like the Barbara Mandrell song, 'She was country when country wasn't cool'; we were innkeepers when being innkeepers wasn't cool,'' Ms. Clark said.
''Blacks couldn't stay in hotels, so they had to stay in other black people's homes whenever they traveled,'' she continued, recalling stories her grandparents told of their travels from Boston to Savannah. ''In black neighborhoods, there was always at least one house that rented out rooms, because they knew of the need. After you stayed in someone's house, they would pack food for you when you were leaving for the next part of the trip.''
Dr. Russell Adams, chairman of the department of Afro-American Studies at Howard University, remembers traveling from Baltimore along U.S. 1 to visit his grandparents in Quitman, Ga. ''There was nowhere we could stay between Baltimore and Georgia, so we stayed at the homes of African-Americans,'' he recalled. ''They were called tourist homes.'' If travelers didn't know where to find these places, Dr. Adams said, they went to black barbershops, where the barbers knew everything going on in the black community. ''If you couldn't find a black barbershop, you just had to sleep in the car, which is what we did a lot,'' he said.
Black travelers could also consult ''The Colored-American Travel Guide,'' which was published in African-American newspapers and listed ''accommodations for the colored traveler.'' In Mobile, Ala., for instance, the choices were Ezell's Rooming House, Mrs. W. S. Gallery's tourist home or the black Y.M.C.A.
When Dr. Adams was a student at Morehouse College in the 1950's, he once stayed with a prominent doctor in Houston. He recalled: ''On his mantel were autographed pictures of people like Marian Anderson; the educator Mary McLeod Bethune; Lester Granger, then head of the National Urban League, and Walter White, then head of the N.A.A.C.P. When I asked him how he had met all of these people, he said: 'They can't stay in any of the hotels when they visit, they have to stay with me. So I just charge them an autographed picture.' ''
Ms. Clark's roots on the Vineyard go back to her great-uncle, a Jamaican immigrant who in 1900 founded the Bradley Memorial Church in Oak Bluffs. Ms. Clark worked 26 years as a stewardess for United Airlines before opening her B & B in 1991, with tips from the International Association of Innkeepers and the book ''So You Want to Be an Innkeeper'' (Chronicle Books). After she married Jay Clark, he built a gazebo and deck onto the house.
Gigi Langston, a court clerk in Essex County, N.J., stayed at Twin Oaks last month. ''That was my first time to Martha's Vineyard, and I'm planning a trip back to stay with Doris again,'' Ms. Langston said. ''It was like going to visit a relative.''
Still, the pioneering owners of black B & B's say they faced skepticism. When Jessie Smallwood opened LaMaison B & B 12 years ago in the Lower Garden District of New Orleans, a longtime innkeeper warned her that no one would go to her inn because ''it was in the ghetto.'' Indignant, Ms. Smallwood sought out other African-American owners to see if they were having such problems and found only a handful. Now she is part of the African American Association of Innkeepers International, which currently has 18 members.
Ms. Parker encountered similar doubts. ''When people hear East St. Louis, all they know about it is the typical things people say about urban cities -- gangs and other things that they read in the paper,'' she said. ''Most of the people in this neighborhood are hard-working, like us. Once the guests get here, they realize it's just like any other city.''
Owners of the B & B's say their guests come from a variety of backgrounds, and include many international travelers. Lester and Francoise Roddy, owners of the Woods House Bed & Breakfast in Ashland, Ore., get the greatest number of guests during the town's annual Shakespeare Festival.
Although they are satisfied with their clientele, which is 99 percent white, they joined the African-American association in hopes of also attracting African-American customers.
Theron and Ava Bowers, who own the Apache Canyon Ranch in Canoncito, N.M., have seen their clientele change. ''In our first year, in 1996, you could count the number of African-Americans coming to the inn on one hand,'' Ms. Bowers said. ''Now, 15 percent of our clients are African-American.''
Helene and Kenneth Barnett opened their bed-and-breakfast in New Orleans three years ago. In the 1980's, when Ms. Barnett was a teen-ager, she loved to entertain her friends in the top-floor apartment where her family lived. The structure was actually a raised Acadian cottage, built in 1904. By 1992, it had been abandoned and was covered in weeds that reached as high as the crumbling terra-cotta roof. Trees and vines were growing through the floorboards and windows, and vagrants had claimed the house to store stolen goods. Her childhood retreat was an eyesore in a neighborhood of Victorian-style homes.
Ms. Barnett, who began her career in the hotel business in Charlotte, N.C., first as a concierge, then as a sales manager for Embassy Suites, dreamed of one day running a B & B with her husband, an interior designer. But they lacked the resources to buy an inn.
Ms. Barnett's mother, Helen Morgan, who owned a financial-consulting firm, believed in the talents of the young couple and provided the capital for them to buy and renovate what is now the Lagniappe Guest House (from the Creole-French word meaning an unexpected surprise). They got the house for only $43,000, but renovations were so extensive -- $200,000 -- that it was two years before they were actually able to move to New Orleans. During Mardi Gras in February 1995, the couple quit their jobs and opened the inn.
Lagniappe House is located in the Garden District of the city, near the French Quarter. The rooms, decorated by Mr. Barnett, include the 1800's Room, with century-old antiques, including a high-backed mahogany bed; the Garden Room, done with floral prints and with a six-foot-long clawfoot bathtub, and the Josephine Baker Room, which has black-and-white portraits of Baker lining the walls and opens onto a private veranda where guests can take in the garden, rosebushes and banana trees.
The Barnetts and their daughter, Camille, 3, live on the top floor -- in the same space where Ms. Barnett lived as a teen-ager.
In Brooklyn, Ms. Greenwood said, people are still surprised to come upon a B & B in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Yet, the Akwaaba Mansion has attracted guests from around the globe.
After seeing a documentary on the Akwaaba Mansion, Hisami, who traveled alone from Osaka, Japan, stayed a week at the B & B. Ms. Greenwood said that she made it clear to her that the mansion would not be like a Manhattan hotel.
Hisami said that a hotel in Manhattan wasn't what she was looking for. She wrote in the registry: ''I learned a lot from you, your family and your people. I'll keep myself more interested in your culture. Please come to Japan so that I can show you my country and people.''
On Martha's Vineyard, Ms. Clark's register lists guests from France, Switzerland, Australia and Ireland. Tom and Pat Doyle from Waterford, Ireland, wrote in Gaelic, ''Slainte Go Deo,'' which means, ''Good health to you forever,'' before they finished in English: ''Visiting your home was like visiting old friends, your warm friendly welcome leads us to believe that you must have Irish ancestors.''
When Marita Golden, a highly acclaimed essayist and novelist from Washington, went on book tours, she never expected her name to be known in the hotels where she stayed. She was surprised, then, when a member of her church told her that she had seen one of Ms. Golden's books in the library of the Akwaaba Mansion.
The author booked a weekend there, and she loved the place so much she came back again last month to hold a book-signing.
''As an African-American, it was uplifting and inspiring to see what she and her husband had done with the place,'' said Ms. Golden, who is also the director of creative writing at Virginia Commonwealth University.
''They are strong role models for people who want to do creative things in terms of revitalizing our communities. And she is a wonderful hostess -- she makes you feel like you're at your grandmother's house.''
''A B & B Guide''
THE African American Association of Innkeepers International (www.africanamericaninns.com) offers a listing of black-owned bed-and-breakfast accommodations across the country. Following are some of them (all prices are for double occupancy).
AKWAABA MANSION -- 347 McDonough Street, Brooklyn 11233; (718) 455-5958. Price: $100 a night.
APACHE CANYON RANCH -- 4 Canyon Drive, Canoncito, N.M. 87026; (800) 808-8310. $90 to $265.
LAGNIAPPE GUEST HOUSE -- 1925 Penniston Street, New Orleans 70115; (800) 317-2120. $100 to $125.
LAMAISON -- 1740 Jackson, New Orleans 70113; (888) 840-2331. $150 to $275.
PARKER GARDEN BED & BREAKFAST -- 2310 State Street, East St. Louis, Ill. 62205; (888) 298-3834. $175 to $200.
TWIN OAKS INN -- P.O. Box 1767, Vineyard Haven, Mass. 02568; (800) 696-8633. $60 to $200, depending on the season.
WOODS HOUSE BED & BREAKFAST -- 333 North Main Street, Ashland, Ore. 97520; (800) 435-8260. $75 to $120.