Natalie Pass-Miller, 42, Preservationist
Teenage Natalie Pass-Miller didn’t know a whole lot about the lovely old Queen Anne home on Gorrell Street her dad had purchased, other than it was her job to help serve up fish plates to raise the money to restore it.
Today she’s spearheading the effort to preserve The Historic Magnolia House as a place to experience and enjoy Black history.
Natalie grew up not far from the historic east Greensboro home that her father, Sam Pass, purchased in 1995. It was already on the National Register of Historic Places as part of the South Greensboro historic district.
It was the home’s time as a hotel that Sam remembered – when it was one of only a handful of city businesses in the 1950s that would rent rooms to Black patrons.
It was a listed in “The Negro Motorist Green-Book,” a guide dedicated to sharing information about businesses that were safe for Black travelers. The Historic Magnolia Hotel was the destination of choice for an impressive lineup of artists and athletes, like Ike and Tina Turner, James Brown, Sam Good, Miles Davis, James Baldwin, Jackie Robinson and Satchel Paige.
She spent the next decade-plus as an emergency room nurse and then an IT professional, raising her own family, moving all around the southeast.
By 2011, Sam had mostly restored the historic home and was using the space for a small food business. But he was working in Durham at the time, and didn’t quite have the time to make the business what he wanted it to be, so in 2017 Natalie committed to helping him build the operation and complete the restoration work. She traveled back and forth every week between Greensboro and her home in Atlanta the 1st year and moved back home to Greensboro in 2018.
Then in 2018, the film “Green Book” came out. It prompted Natalie to learn a bit more about the guide.
“I had to sit myself down and understand and digest exactly what this was, what I had my hands on and what are we going to do with it,” Natalie says. “It lead to me learning about all the African American pioneers in my family that have contributed to the Civil rights of Greensboro and the Black history of Greensboro.”
Like her great, great grandfather, Papa Diggs (Jefferson Davis Diggs), who was one of the founders of the school that would become Winston-Salem State University. Or her uncle Samuel Penn, The city’s first Black police officers who was married to her aunt Eloise Logan-Penn, the first Black woman to run a music program in the local schools and creator of the Delta Sigma Theta’s Sweetheart Song.
While Natalie loved her corporate job, she felt the pull of that family history, the allure of working in the community.
She packed up her family and moved to Greensboro with intentions to build a nonprofit to sustain the Magnolia House and create an African American history museum on the site.
“It’s the family legacy. I am the oldest child. It’s what you do, especially when you have something of this magnitude,” she says. “Especially if you have unfinished work.”
Natalie got to work building a network in Greensboro, connecting with people who could build on the knowledge about the home, the business, and its history. Natalie has been energized by these partnerships, and the things she has learned.
She launched a Jazz brunch series and started renting the space for small, special events. With everything they do, Natalie is focused on making it a “true, authentic, intimate experience” that imbues its time as a Green Book hotel. Like the “shoebox lunches” they now offer Thursdays through Saturdays. They’re a throwback to how Black travelers would eat on the road when there were few safe places to stop. “We are in the business of reuniting history with its communities,” Natalie says.
This month, for Black History Month, the Historic Magnolia House is hosting special exhibits: one designed by UNCG museum studies students and a traveling exhibit by the North Carolina African American Heritage Commission, “Oasis Spaces,” about the Green Book and travel during the Jim Crow era.
Long term – and post-pandemic – the goal is to raise the money needed to refurbish the rest of the home and begin offering overnight experiences in the space. A true Magnolia Hotel experience, like those famous patrons would have had.
“It will be really cool. We are excited about the direction it’s taking,” Natalie says. “They will truly feel like they are being immersed, almost as if they are imposing on James Baldwin.”