Paducah's Hotel Metropolitan Memorializes Cultural, Social, and Local History
Since its founding by Ms. Maggie Steed in 1908, Paducah's Hotel Metropolitan has boasted an esteemed guest list, including Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, and B.B. King. Current owner of the Hotel Metropolitan Betty Dobson speaks with Tracy Ross about the hotel's long-lasting legacy.
From the City of Paducah's website:
"The Hotel Metropolitan was built in 1908 by Maggie Steed, an African-American woman, to accommodate people of color. It became a designated stop in the Green Book, a safe haven for African-American travelers, including world-famous entertainers traveling the Chitlin' Circuit like Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, and Ike and Tina Turner."
After lodging world-famous celebrities for decades, the Hotel Metropolitan was shut down, abandoned, and ultimately condemned in 1999. Dobson recalls a day when she and her best friend, Sheryl Cooper, were looking at the run-down building. "This man comes up and told us about all the people that stayed there. Billie Holiday and Cab Calloway. It kind of hit me like a ton of bricks. You can't let this go. We've got to do something."
When Dobson and Cooper were first interested in restoring the Hotel Metropolitan, it was owned by award-winning football coach and Paducah native Clarence "Big House" Gaines. "He wasn't keen on the idea of donating the hotel to me. I'll say it like that," Dobson laughs.
"We weren't quite an organization at the time. We were trying to form, and I was sort of the spokesperson. He didn't know my family; I'm not originally from Paducah. That's big with folks. You gotta know who your people are, where you came from, all of those things. He wasn't real keen on helping us."
Dobson explains that she and her colleagues eventually brought Gaines around to the idea of restoring the hotel in the name of maintaining its long-lasting cultural, social, and local significance. "I have found people who are involved with historic things don't actually see it being historic. It was a hotel that his parents owned and, at the time, which was purely natural to him, people of color stayed there because they had to."
"There were no other places for them to go that would accept them," Dobson continues. Unless someone had a home, like Maggie; hat's how she got started. She had a room that she could offer to Black travelers. Not just Black travelers, travelers of color, because if you were Cuban, your skin color was wrong, then you might as well have been Black. You would have to go seek out a hotel that would accommodate you."
In addition to the Hotel Metropolitan, Dobson wishes she could have restored Lincoln High School. Preservation of segregated establishments like these helps remind local communities where they've come from and how much further they have to go to achieve equality. One such example of a widely forgotten practice in the Paducah area was the paper bag test.
The paper bag test, Dobson explains, was a skin color comparison test. Only students whose skin was lighter than a standard brown paper bag could attend Lincoln High School. "It's a part of history that I was involved in," she says. "The paper bag test wasn't conducted and used during my lifetime, but for my older sister and brother, they had to face the paper bag test. Some sororities and fraternities still used that method up into the '70s. It got its start from the ends of slavery."
Despite the region's shadowed past, Dobson says there has been some progress made. "But there's still a lot of work to be done," she adds. "There's still that divide that exists. It's not so much that is something that you can see daily, but it does exist."
"Our past president -- he was not, in my opinion, a person of unity. He had caused great division. In my opinion, where we were moving forward, he was trying to take us back. But I'm so glad that we are a stronger, better group of people than that, and [we] rose up and said no, we're not going back to that. I think George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, because of those events, I think people say that yes, there is a long ways, and this clearly shows that we have a lot of work to do. But I'm proud of those people who came out and said, 'I'm not accepting this.' We can do better."
Dobson says that her most recent highlight of running the Hotel Metropolitan was watching Representative Charles Booker speak on the hotel steps. "Standing on the steps outside, seeing the crowd of all types of people -- different races, kids, people on bikes, waving flags, singing -- I thought, Lord, this is why you had us here. This is that time. This is what all the hard work was for."