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History in the remaking: The story of Magnolia House has a newly discovered chapter
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History in the remaking: The story of Magnolia House has a newly discovered chapter

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GREENSBORO — The hallway plaque at The Historic Magnolia House calls it "The DeButts House" and announces its listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

The former motel for Black travelers during segregation easily qualifies for the designation, said Benjamin Briggs, executive director of Preservation Greensboro. 

But new research shows that the plaque should probably be changed. It turns out that Capt. Daniel DeButts played only a minor role in the 131-year history of the house at 442 Gorrell St.

Briggs' recent record search found that Annie and John W. Reed bought it new in 1889.

DeButts and his wife, Francis, rented it for a few years in the early 20th century.

"This opened up a new, early chapter of the house that was previously unknown," Briggs said.

It's also prompted Magnolia's current owners and curator to pursue a new plaque — minus the DeButts name.

"It’s definitely something we’ll be looking into over time," said Melissa Knapp, Magnolia House's site manager and curator.

The house has been listed on the National Register since 1991. That's five years before Sam Pass, who grew up in the neighborhood, bought it in 1996.

It doesn't stand on the register alone, but as a contributing property to the South Greensboro National Register Historic District that surrounds it.

On Monday, Magnolia House leaders sent an email to supporters, updating its history.

“Learning this new information reflects our ever-changing understanding of history as new documents and sources become available," according to the email. “We are so excited to include this update in our historical narrative and educational programs going forward.”

The Pass family has restored the Queen Anne-style structure at Gorrell and Plott streets, high above Murrow Boulevard. 

It hosts Sunday brunches. Natalie Pass-Miller, Sam's daughter, oversees it.

The Magnolia's history as a motel is well known.

Arthur and Louise "Louie" Gist bought the house in 1949 and converted it to a bed-and-breakfast. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Magnolia House offered distinguished and upscale accommodations for Black motorists in the segregated South.

Entertainers and other celebrities stayed there. Among its guests were James Brown, Ike and Tina Turner, Ray Charles, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and baseball stars Jackie Robinson and Satchel Paige.

It joined hotels, restaurants, nightclubs, gas stations and beauty salons listed in "The Green Book" for Black motorists seeking safe places to stay and dine. The state-by-state guide, published between 1936 and 1966, served as a travel guide and a tool of resistance to confront racial discrimination.

But it "boasts a history that pre-dates the renowned motel," Briggs wrote in his recent research.

In August and September, Briggs researched the home's history again for Preservation Greensboro's virtual 2020 Tour of Historic Homes & Gardens, which runs through Dec. 1.

And he discovered more details than researchers did in 1990.

"Research is so much easier today with ancestry.com, newspapers.com and online resources," Briggs said. 

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The earlier research went back the required 50 years to qualify it for the National Register.

The DeButts' name was the earliest that surveyors could find at the time in the City Directory, Briggs said. But street addresses can change over time. The Magnolia House changed from 438 to 442 Gorrell St. 

Had surveyors known that and dug deeper, they might have uncovered more, Briggs said.

"It makes me really excited about this house," Briggs said. "What a great story it tells." 

Through deeds, he discovered that contractor John Donnell Jr. built the house in 1889. The Reeds bought it for $1,300 at a time when white families occupied parts of Gorrell Street.

Early insurance maps indicate it featured a three-story tower above the front door. A house two blocks away on Pearson Street has an identical floor plan.

Very few features survive from this earliest period of construction.

John Reed was a grocer of bulk meats, lard and multiple brands of flour on South Elm Street. Unfortunately, in March 1890, Reed’s grocery was severely damaged by water used to extinguish a large South Elm Street fire. Most of his flour was ruined, and he had no insurance.

Two months later, Annie Reed died, but the property remained in her extended family by will to a son by her first marriage, Thomas Tiddy.

Over the next 20 years, the house was rented by the Tiddy family to Annie’s parents, Dr. Calvin Graves and his wife Caroline, as well as to the DeButts couple.

In 1914, the house was sold to Nina and John Plott, a road contractor. They raised three children there.

They likely made major changes by expanding the house's floor plan and updating architectural features. Briggs believes that Greensboro stonemason Andrew Leopold Schlosser added the Mount Airy granite stonework.

The house was badly damaged in the 1936 Greensboro tornado.

Though John died in 1938, Nina retained the house until 1949.

Enter the Gists, who bought it from her. They lived in South Carolina, but in the 1940s their oldest son attended N.C. A&T. By 1950, the African American family lived in the Gorrell Street house, also listed as the Magnolia House tourist home in the City Directory.

Son Herman became a state legislator. Son Arthur "Buddy" Gist Jr. became a protege of trumpeter Miles Davis and a business partner of Jackie Robinson.

The youngest child, Annie Lou Gist, was active in the NAACP while attending Bennett College. She received a doctorate in physical and health education from New York University.

"All three were overachievers," Briggs said. "A superstar family grew up in this house."

As late as 1968, the Magnolia House was listed as a tourist home in Greensboro's City Directory.

Herman Gist lived there until his death in 1994. Sam Pass bought it in 1996 from Grace Gist, Herman’s widow.

"It's just an amazing history," Briggs said. "What amazing storylines exist in Greensboro that we still don't even know about?"

National Register plaques are not regulated, Briggs said. Current owners can buy a new one — minus the DeButts name — from a private foundry.

The Historic Magnolia House story shows new research can change history.

"History cannot be static," Briggs said. "We must work to gain perspectives and insights using new research tools to cultivate a more inclusive historical narrative. As we learn more, our city becomes even more interesting."

Contact Dawn DeCwikiel-Kane at 336-373-5204 and follow @dawndkaneNR on Twitter.

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