Beginning with Paducah’s Metropolitan Hotel, Ken Billett’s new travel column takes us to historically-significant places within a weekend’s drive from Memphis
Words and photos by Ken Billett
Standing at the top of a wooden staircase, the narrow hallway, featuring an old-fashioned carpet runner—slightly askew— beckoned me to explore its past. Guest rooms, surprisingly spacious, yet tiny when compared with modern-day hotel accommodations, lined the hall.
These lovingly restored rooms were gateways to a troubled past, and as I walked down the hallway, each small room spoke to me—with various voices from long ago.
Voice from a Troubled Past: Each voice, however, asked the same question—Do you remember?
Do you remember the Big Band Era with Cab Calloway’s scat and jive? Or the bee-bop jazz of singer Ella Fitzgerald? Soul sensation James Brown telling everyone that he felt good? Or, the incomparable Tina Turner struttin’ and screamin’ about a big wheel that kept on turning?
If you do, then you know those voices all belonged to famous entertainers, who, long ago, were treated as second-class citizens in their own country.
That sad truth is what these voices want you to remember – they need to be remembered.
The Hotel Metropolitan
In another life, I would have been an architectural historian—helping to preserve the physical structure of historic buildings. But I what I truly love is the history of old buildings. Every building has a past and a story to tell. That’s what I enjoy—telling those stories, which may be tragic or may be triumphant.
Sometimes, those stories may contain a little of both.
The Hotel Metropolitan was born of necessity during the darkest days of segregation, yet the hotel became a well-established stop for travelers of color—everyday folks and those African-American celebrities, who now seem larger than life.
Chitlin’ Circuit to the Green Book
For more than fifty years, the Hotel Metropolitan served a Who’s Who of “Negro” celebrities: entertainers, musicians, singers, sports figures, and even a future Supreme Court Justice. Hotels like the Metropolitan were essential for Black entertainers working their way through the old Chitlin’ Circuit.
Years later, the Metropolitan was listed in the Negro Motorist Green Book, commonly known as the Green Book, as one of only two hotels in Paducah, Kentucky that allowed Black guests.
Yet, the Metropolitan’s success in those days was due not to the limited number of options available to the Black community, but to something all of us want, regardless of race: love and compassion.
Maggie, Mamie, and “Miss Betty”
According to Betty Dobson, Director of the Hotel Metropolitan and Museum, the hotel has always been run by women.
“Women,” Dobson explained, “are better at compassion.”
She went on to tell me that the women who ran the Hotel Metropolitan in the early days, along with the female owners who came later, understood that compassion was key to making their guests feel safe, secure, and welcomed.
Particularly at a time when Negro travelers had to be careful.
“They were planting a seed,” Dobson said, “to grow the business.” She paused. “That’s what made them so successful…compassion.”
Maggie Steed started the hotel in the early 20th Century. Then, Mamie Burbridge Guise took over the hotel’s ownership, putting her own stamp on the Metropolitan. Currently, “Miss Betty,” as Dobson is known in and around Paducah, runs the hotel and museum. She’s a remarkable woman who realized the importance of preserving a cultural landmark.
Preservation and Renewal
As racial barriers slowly crumbled, the Hotel Metropolitan became a boarding house, which continued catering primarily to people of color. Eventually, the boarders moved on and the Metropolitan, after almost fifty more years, closed its doors. Sadly, the old building sat vacant for several years.
The hotel is located in the heart of Upper Town, a predominantly Black neighborhood adjacent to the downtown district of Paducah, Kentucky. Betty Dobson and others from the neighborhood formed the Upper Town Heritage Foundation, whose main purpose was the restoration and preservation of this historic building.
Work began in 2000 and was completed in 2007. The restored hotel has several upstairs rooms available for overnight guests. Miss Betty reminds me, however, that only Room Nine has its own bathroom facilities. The original Hotel Metropolitan had eleven rooms—nine upstairs and two downstairs—but only a shared facility located along that narrow hallway.
There’s an updated, full-size kitchen, however, located downstairs and overnight guests are treated to breakfast every morning.
Lessons from a Troubled Past
Dobson wants the Hotel Metropolitan to be both a reminder of the past—the Black experience under segregation—and a beacon shining on a brighter future. Teaching a lesson to future generations.
She said we all must learn from the past and work together to break down racial barriers, but Dobson is concerned about “forgetfulness,” as she calls it. Today’s generation should have an appreciation for where they came from, she explains, and to ensure those barriers are not, somehow, reconstructed.
“Never let it (segregation) happen again.”
Tours of the hotel and museum are by appointment only. The tour includes a history of the hotel, a presentation on the African-American experience in the early to mid-20th Century, along with Miss Betty’s hospitality—her compassion—with a slice of homemade pie or freshly popped popcorn, served in nondescript brown paper sacks.
Those paper sacks, however, contain a lesson, not just a treat. Dobson explains to guests that at various times—in some instances, even as late as the 1970s—Blacks were subjected to the paper sack test. If your skin was darker than the brown sack, you might be denied rights or privileges that lighter-skinned Blacks enjoyed.
Compassion mixed with a tough lesson to ensure that no one forgets.
Also included in the tour are Dobson’s anecdotes about the famous guests who stayed at the Hotel Metropolitan. Miss Betty loves telling these stories, and here’s a partial list of that Who’s Who of African-American celebrities, including: Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Louis Armstrong, Satchel Paige, Della Reese, Duke Ellington, the Harlem Globetrotters, and that future Supreme Court justice, Thurgood Marshall.
Every old building has a history and a story to tell.
And lessons to teach.
Writer’s Note: My new travel column, Get Out of Town, will occasionally focus on an interesting place or event specific to the featured destination. For this column, our place of interest is a historic old hotel and museum near downtown Paducah, Kentucky.
If you’re not familiar with Paducah, it’s a little over three hours northeast of Memphis in western Kentucky where the Tennessee River meets the Ohio River.
Ken Billett has called Memphis home for more than thirty years. A freelance writer, fiction author, and nationally known advocate for skin cancer prevention and research, Ken volunteers his time at the Blues Hall of Fame on South Main in downtown Memphis. When not tending to his flowers, Ken and his wife Vicki travel extensively. StoryBoard Memphis is proud to present Ken’s columns Time Capsules and the newest, Get out of Town as, ongoing features here on StoryBoard.