LAST DAYS OF THE KILBY HOTEL?
Hopes for the resurrection of the Kilby Hotel have sprung forth almost from the beginning of its decline in the late 1960s and early ’70s.
The defeat of legally sanctioned racial segregation in the 1960s spelled the beginning of the end for Washington Street as the center of black commerce and culture in High Point, as black capital, talent and business enterprise were allowed to flow beyond its confines. As the doctors, lawyers, grocers, billiards operators, shoe merchants and druggists deserted the neighborhood, its centerpiece the Kilby Hotel began its gradual slide into disrepair.
Built in the 1910s, the stately, three-story brick building is impressive even in its current state of advanced decay. A shallow bracketed canopy wraps around the southeast corner and the generous first-floor storefronts have been secured with plywood. Arched windows hooded with detailed brickwork give a view to the blue sky where the roof has completely collapsed.
Recently described by Ramona M. Bartos, the state historic preservation officer, as “one of the finest commercial structures on Washington Street” and “a rare survivor of African-American hotels from the first half of the 20 th century in North Carolina,” the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982. An adjacent two-story structure was built later in a similar architectural style and housed Club Kilby, a center of black social life that augmented the hotel business.
At least three major pushes to revitalize the district with the Kilby Hotel as its crown jewel have come and gone since 1981, when the application for the national historic registry noted that the hotel was “the cornerstone of the proposed Washington Street renovation project.”
Meanwhile, Becky’s and Mary’s, a soul food institution on the street since the early 1970s, continues to do brisk business. A smartly equipped playground with an oversized xylophone and cafe-style seating for adults has opened down the street. Jackie Haizlip, a local entrepreneur, has renovated several buildings, including her signature Jackie’s Place events center, which she said is “hanging on.” And a foundation built from the North State Telephone fortune is providing small grants for residential weatherization and programming events such as movie screenings at the old Ritz Theatre, most recently providing space for a new art gallery. Many people who live and work around Washington Street have moved forward without the Kilby.
The Kilby Hotel had already been condemned in mid-October when a citizen called in a complaint to the High Point Fire Department that the building was creaking like it could collapse at any time. The city responded by closing off a section of Washington and Hobson streets, and seeking permission to knock it down through an emergency hearing with Guilford County Historic Preservation Commission.
As the city awaits a decision from the commission, foot traffic continues up and down the street, and some determined motorists have taken to driving through the grass behind a nearby building and then along a sidewalk to transgress the barricades.
Their names are uttered as a kind of holy trinity of legendary black entertainers, and recited almost as an article of faith.
Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald and Billy Eckstein performed at Club Kilby, and slept at the hotel.
Some version of the story has been repeated in all three daily newspapers in the Triad and even in a plan adopted by the city in 2008 — all without substantiation.
“If they appeared there, why didn’t they have evidence of it?” asked Glenn Chavis, a retired pharmaceutical sales rep who has become the preeminent authority on black history in High Point.
“Cab Calloway’s sister, Blanche Calloway — who wasn’t nearly as famous as her brother — made an appearance on High Street in High Point. They ran an ad in the newspaper 30 days before the performance with seating information for black and white people. And you’re telling me you can’t produce a single newspaper clipping or brochure to show me that these famous entertainers came to the Kilby Hotel?” If evidence of visits by such famed entertainers existed, Chavis is the person who would most likely have uncovered it. Several of his columns in the News & Record have highlighted
cultural programs in High Point’s black community during the Jim Crow era, listing in excruciating detail baseball games, ping-pong tournaments, gospel showcases and plays produced by black civic clubs.
Chavis grew up on Underhill Avenue, which intersects Washington about five blocks from the Kilby Hotel, in the 1940s.
“My parents loved to dance; my wife’s mother loved to dance,” he said. “When they wanted to see Count Basie and Billy Eckstein, they went to Greensboro or Winston-Salem.”
Burnie McElrath, the fourth-generation co-owner of the Kilby Hotel, corroborated that point. She said no registry exists recording the names of the hotel’s guests, and any claims about famous visitors must be treated as hearsay.
She keeps a clipping of an undated newspaper advertisement for a benefit performance by Nat King Cole at the Greensboro Coliseum, which notes that the concert was presented by the Palmer Institute Alumni. But she noted that there was also a black-owned hotel in Greensboro, so there’s no reason to think Cole would have needed accommodations at the Kilby.
Other myths that have grown up around the hotel involve jazz pioneer John Coltrane, who was raised on Underhill Avenue and attended William Penn High School on Washington Street. Chavis said a popular tall tale has it that Nannie Kilby, who built the hotel, gave Coltrane odd jobs around the hotel and he sat on the back steps and practiced his saxophone when he wasn’t working. One problem with the story is that Coltrane was born in 1926, five years after Kilby’s death; another is that Coltrane played the clarinet during his days in High Point and didn’t take up the saxophone until he moved to Philadelphia.
“I’ve got invitations to Club Kilby from black clubs and organizations,” Chavis said. “That’s where they had their Christmas parties and yearly fundraising dances. I don’t have to add John Coltrane and Ella Fitzgerald to that.”
The real significance of the Kilby Hotel doesn’t depend on famous entertainers.
The hotel, like Washington Street itself, represents the sheer determination of African Americans to succeed through hard work, resourcefulness and social solidarity in an era when white supremacy blocked opportunity in all arenas.
John Kilby and Nannie Pennix were born in Alamance County in the 1870s, according to information submitted for the Kilby Hotel’s National Register of Historic Places application, and moved to High Point in the mid-1890s, around the time of their marriage. While her husband put in time with the railroad, Nannie Kilby worked as a nurse, a hairdresser and fish seller, and they eventually invested in real estate.
A local newspaper obituary on file at the High Point Public Library states that upon his arrival in High Point, John Kilby “began a most colorful career of hard work and frugality,” adding that “during the time he was accumulating holdings in real estate he continued to work, retiring only two years ago from the Southern Railway System upon reaching the retirement age and service period.”
Nannie Kilby’s obituary described her as “one of High Point’s wealthiest and best known negroes” and someone who “was known by persons of both races.”
A publication produced in the mid- 20 th century entitled Negro in High Point said of her: “Mrs. Kilby bore the name of being the hardest working woman in the city during this period. Figuratively speaking, everything she touched turned to money.”
That should count for a lot, Guilford County Commissioner Bruce Davis told members of the historic preservation commission.
“Even after growing up it was something that we could say, ‘This is something that an African-American woman built,’” he said. “This African- American woman with meager resources compared to what we have today was able to build a hotel. So I can point to this building as it stands now and tell a young person: ‘This is what took place. This is what happened. If this could be done in 1913, then you can do the same thing.’” Ora Kilby Martin, John and Nannie’s only child, took over the operation of the hotel while in her mid-twenties shortly after her mother’s death. As a child of black wealth, she demonstrated both business acumen and a sense of social responsibility to maintain and advance the family legacy. Marrying a doctor only further cemented her status.
Dr. Joseph Alfred Martin was the progeny of similar bootstrapping stock. An obituary in the Winston-Salem Sentinel recorded that Martin’s father, a former slave, bought a team of horses and transported noted customers such as Col. Frank Fries, the textiles and banking baron, on long trips back and forth to Virginia.
Ora Kilby Martin was an active clubwoman. Her name is inscribed on a copy of a booklet containing the constitution of the Alpha Art Club that is in the possession of her granddaughter, Burnie McElrath. The club’s mission is outlined in Article II: “To promote the interest of its members in art; to aid and promote civic betterment in the community; to furnish wholesome recreation for its members and friends and to aid delinquent Negro Girls of NC.”
Another booklet, containing the program of the Old North State Medical Society for the black professional organization’s 1950 annual meeting in High Point gives a flavor of the social world of Dr. Joseph A. and Mrs. Ora K. Martin — and the Kilby Hotel.
Dr. Martin naturally chaired the housing committee for the annual meeting, while his wife served as treasurer for the woman’s auxiliary. A “smoker” was scheduled at Club Kilby for 8:30 p.m. on the second night of the convention, presumably for the male doctors, while a “ladies’ meet” was held at the residence of Dr. HH Creft Jr. on Underhill Avenue.
While members could hear about the latest advances in their field from esteemed guest speakers, the program gives ample evidence that the convention was not all work, promising “three afternoons” of “feasting, sightseeing and picnicking,” and urging them to “bring your wife — a double portion of friendliness, your sport togs, your other shoes; and a complete set of alibis.”
Enticements for the evening would include “visiting, bridging and gingeraleing.”
And as for the smoker held at Club Kilby, the program promised in doggerel form both entertainment and education: “DRESS UP your out look on life — TIE your worries to the hitching post and, SOCK your troubles with scientific information.”
Burnie McElrath said she has been told by “old heads” that Club Kilby was also part of the so-called “chitlin’ circuit.” Glenn Chavis’ research has uncovered that Geechee Robinson & his Band and Hartley Toots & his Orchestra performed there, with the latter group providing the entertainment for the Furniture City Elks Lodge’s annual ball in May 1940.
High and low culture frequently bumped up against each other within the segregated world of Washington Street.
Chavis recalled that when he was a child he investigated a tent pitched across the street from the Kilby Hotel. A poster nailed to a telephone pole advertised the traveling show’s clandestine offering: “Come See Silas Green From New Orleans and His Fabulous Show Girls.”
Befitting her role as a community leader, Ora K. Martin played an important, albeit discrete role, in supporting the civil rights movement, as young people in High Point followed their peers in Greensboro in demanding equal access to public accommodations in the early 1960s.
“My mother said that during the different marches and protests, my grandmother was one of the people who would go to bail people out of the High Point Jail,” Burnie McElrath said. “It was not something you would talk about. That wasn’t something that was a topic of discussion. Children were to be seen and not heard. That was a dangerous time, and you had to be careful about who knew what you were doing.”
As Ora K. Martin advanced into old age, her daughter, Marion McElrath, operated the hotel. Burnie McElrath said her mother rented the rooms “out to people down on their luck.” The second floor housed larger family suites, where Marion’s sister and Burnie’s aunt, Josephine Smith, stayed. On the third floor, several bedrooms were supported by one or two bathrooms.
The Kilby Hotel was always part rooming house and part overnight lodging for business travelers. As the years wore on, the long-stay business tended to predominate.
Drugs began to strain the fabric of Washington Street in the 1970s, rending a grievous breach as the problem deepened through the next two decades.
The plague did not spare the McElrath family. By the mid-1980s, Marion McElrath, then in her late sixties, had to give up operation of the hotel because of declining health. Her son, William Alfred, ran the hotel and lived there. Under his watch, the Kilby became a haven for drug users.
William Alfred McElrath, 31, was shot to death in front of First Baptist Church, next door to the hotel, on Nov. 16, 1988.
“Supposedly it was drug related,” his sister said. “He and the man who shot him had been having words for quite some time. The gentleman who shot my brother was a friend. From my understanding, he shot him because he didn’t want to be shot first.”
An account in the High Point Enterprise at the time indicated that McElrath had struck Michael Edward Armstrong, a 25-year-old unemployed cook, on the head with a glass bottle down the street earlier in the day. When police and emergency personnel arrived on the scene shortly after the 4:30 p.m. shooting, Armstrong turned himself in and told the authorities that he had gone to his car to get his gun and returned to find McElrath standing in front of the church. When McElrath started to speak, Armstrong shot him three times.
William Joseph “Joe” McElrath had been living in Seattle at the time, and he returned to High Point for his brother’s funeral. He ended up staying on, and took over responsibility for the hotel. He remained involved until recently, and relinquished his share of ownership in the hotel only 10 months ago.
Marion McElrath died in 1991, and Burnie left the day-to-day operations of the hotel to her brother, Joe.
Theodore Little Jr., a barber and school bus driver who moved to High Point from Windsor, Ontario in 1996 and was the hotel’s last resident, said he believes William Alfred’s death stoked feelings of resentment towards the neighborhood within the surviving siblings.
Burnie McElrath, who lives a block and a half away from the hotel, said she tends to not make eye contact with people on Washington Street, indicating that she’s wary of being approached.
Trust overall has eroded in the community, McElrath said, although the community activists, artists and merchants who put on the Washington Street Unity Festival this past weekend would probably rate it higher.
“The relationship among people on Washington Drive [the street’s former name] is not the same as it was in Washington Drive’s heyday,” McElrath said. “The unity is not there. Children are not as interested in their parents’ businesses. They went away to school and probably didn’t come back.”
Somewhere along the line — whether because of the hotel or other reasons — a rift opened between Joe and Burnie, too.
“My idea and his idea was totally different,” Burnie McElrath said. “I was in favor of saving what my grandparents had done. He was in favor of selling it. When he came here I tried to make him understand that it takes a lot of dedication and hard work. I was telling him about how drugs had taken over the neighborhood. I was trying to tell him: ‘It’s not the way you think it is.’” Seated on a stool at the pro desk at Home Depot in Greensboro on a recent rainy Friday afternoon, Joe McElrath listened to an account of his sister’s characterizations with an air of weary patience. If anyone questions his commitment to preserving the hotel, he said they should consider that he worked to get the property listed on the National Registry of Historic Places before he left for Washington State, and that he invested time, energy and money to fix up the hotel when he returned to High Point.
“There’s something wrong with my sister,” he said without elaborating.
Brian Thorne, who came to Washington Street in the late 1990s to take advantage of a drug treatment program, said he believes the Joe McElrath and Burnie McElrath aren’t saying what is truly at the root of their feud.
“It’s something that happened between her and her brother that everybody don’t know,” said Thorne, who now works at Slane Hosiery Mills and operates a cleaning service. “Until they make amends, nothing can be done. You’re black. You’re supposed to be pulling together. You’ve got the mayor and the county commissioner behind you. You need to sit at the table together and squash it.”
Over the past 20 years, newspaper accounts and city planning documents have sounded a recurring theme — already set in 1982 — centered on hopes that the restoration of the Kilby Hotel will catalyze a renaissance for Washington Street.
A 1995 dispatch in the News & Record concluded, “The city hopes that the Kilby will be the cornerstone in longrange plans to make East Washington Avenue a thriving business center again — the way Nannie and John Kilby knew it.”
The High Point Enterprise reported in 2000 that realtor Audie Cashion envisioned the Kilby Hotel redeveloped as a furniture showroom that would create a beachhead for the market to expand north across Kivett Drive.
In February 2007, the High Point City Council adopted the Core City Plan, a blueprint for revitalizing the urban core of the city that later evolved into City Project, a nonprofit supported by the city. City Project recently commissioned a master plan by internationally renowned urban planner Andres Duany that contains detailed recommendations for several parts of the city, but does not address Washington Street.
But when City Project was organized in August 2008, Washington Street was a focal point of the initiative.
Tom Terrell, a local lawyer who chaired the nonprofit’s board at the time, said he met developer Wayne Mc- Donald in front of the Kilby Hotel. Mc- Donald holds a reputation for tackling historic renovations, and is responsible for Centennial Station, the new home of the High Point Area Arts Council. Joe McElrath said McDonald had a contract drawn up to buy the Kilby Hotel.
Burnie McElrath said she rejected a proposed sale in 2009 because the same potential buyer had previously attempted to acquire the property without her knowledge.
“I had a bad taste in my mouth,” she said. “It was illegal. It was really inappropriate. When you’re going to buy something, you find out who the owners are. You don’t just get ready to write a check without finding out who the owners are. I mean, come on. You know how women gossip in a beauty shop? That’s how my daughter found out.”
Joe McElrath shook his head when told about his sister’s misgivings about the proposed deal.
“Do you know anything about real estate works?” he asked. “Her name was on the deed, wasn’t it?” McDonald could not be reached for this story.
Terrell said McDonald had been willing to buy the Kilby Hotel as a “linchpin” for area redevelopment plans if the city would commit to streetscaping and other improvements.
“I worked with Wayne in communication with the council members about the city’s commitment, and he was ready to move quickly to make repairs and do something,” Terrell said. “I also met with Burnie McElrath…. She had zero interest in selling and no ability herself to make repairs.
“Burnie has been the problem for years,” Terrell added. “She has refused to sell the property to someone who could repair it and redevelop it. And she has been incapable of repairing it herself. She has wanted the city and other entities to spend money to make the renovations so that she could get the profits. That’s not going to happen.”
City Project Executive Director Wendy Fuscoe stated in an affidavit sworn recently that Joe McElrath was eager to sell the hotel, but Burnie was not.
“The deal did not go forward, and interest in other redevelopment projects on Washington Street stopped,” Fuscoe said.
In August 2012, the city inspectors discovered that the roof and part of the third floor had collapsed. Theodore Little Jr. was staying in a second-floor apartment in the adjoining building known as the Arcade — previously occupied by Joe McElrath — when it happened.
“I was sleeping in the building when the third floor fell in,” he said. “It shifted the whole building over.”
By that time, Little said, Joe McElrath had lost heart.
“He said he was tired of the crime and the way people treated him and his family,” Little said. “He didn’t want to invest. He didn’t invest, and he let it go down.”
The dissension between the siblings has reverberated through the black political establishment in High Point, with prominent elected officials taking different sides.
“I can’t see an entity stepping up to invest in it unless they have some interest in it,” Mayor Bernita Sims said.
Guilford County Commissioner Bruce Davis has taken Burnie McElrath’s side.
“I know some of the proposals that have been made to Ms. McElrath have just been inferior proposals,” he told the historic preservation commission. “And I understand why she would not accept them because, to be honest, some people have just wanted to take the property. They want it for nothing.”
Davis pledged that he will work to bring the community together behind the hotel, and said he has talked to a couple potential investors.
But Brian Thorne, the cleaning service owner, said it’s hard to bring the community together when the owners hold their neighbors at arm’s length.
“You’ve got a piece of property and you don’t show yourself friendly?” he marveled. “Who’s that hurt? Imagine if you’ve got a farm and you don’t know how to talk to somebody. How are you going to get anybody to work it?” Compounding the injury of possibly losing the Kilby Hotel, another historic landmark on Washington Street has also been condemned. The bell tower of First Baptist Church, next door to the hotel, is visibly falling back.
“It’s a wonderful street; it has a lot to offer,” said Glenn Chavis, the local historian. “It pains me, and I’ve shed my tears. It hurts me to explain all the vacant lots. And there are going to be two more vacant lots.”
ALL PHOTOS COURTESY OF BURNIE MCELRATH UNLESS OTHERWISE STATED