THOMASVILLE, Ga. (WTXL) — If you've driven into Thomasville, more than likely you've passed the Imperial Hotel. The now-empty building was once a safe place for African-American travelers. Now, there's an effort to save the landmark and preserve its history by the Jack Hadley Black History Museum.
"The hotel was an eight-bedroom hotel with one bath upstairs. The downstairs was a beauty and barbershop and a small cafe," said museum owner Jack Hadley. "We plan to make an Air BnB out of it and use the downstairs as a rotating exhibit."
In the Jim Crow south, the Imperial Hotel was one of few places where African-Americans were allowed to rest their heads, eat, and get a haircut. During segregation, African-Americans relied on the 'Negro Travelers Green Book.'
That book served as a road map for travelers, naming each hotel, restaurant, and shop for African-Americans to stop in. The hotel opened in 1949 and closed in 1969. Through donations from the Williams Foundation and Thomasville Landmarks, Hadley bought the empty hotel in 2018.
"Had the investor known it was in the 'Green Book', we wouldn't be having this conversation today," Hadley joked.
Hadley said at the time of the sale, everyone was unaware that the hotel was featured in the guide.
"If I hadn't bought this hotel and they erased it and then I found out this, I would've had to live with it for the rest of my life. I'm excited that we bought it," he said.
Thomasville Landmark played an important role in securing the hotel. Thomasville Landmark Executive Director Nancy Tinker says it's important to spread the word about the Imperial and what it and the 'Green Book' once stood for.
"Until the movie 'Green Book', that was a history largely unknown to broader America," she said.
Thomasville Landmarks works to preserve the history of all sorts. An important job in a city like Thomasville where there's history on every corner. Tinker says that preservation tells a deeper story about the heart and soul of the people in the community.
"This, I think, is a remarkable community. The fact that there was a 'Green Book' hotel here. I think speaks to the importance of this community and this community's awareness of the needs of African-Americans travelers during that period."
The building was vacant for about 20 years before the Hadley Museum took over. He's only the third owner since it was built. From years of abandonment, boards cover the windows as it blends into the scene of other vacant buildings. Hadley also owns a shotgun house directly beside the hotel. Both buildings sit directly on Jackson Street heading into the popular downtown district.
"I think that if any building from any facet of our history is modest in scale or size or design, it tends to blend into the background and to not be noticed as much as other higher style buildings might be," Tinker said. "It's that very lack of presence that I believe allowed that building to remain and remain intact as it has which places us in position to take a building that has not been altered and to find adaptive uses for that," she said.
But there are high hopes for the future of the Imperial.
"People really recognize the value of preserving history. I hope they continue to embrace that," said Hadley.
Preserving history is important to the curator. Hadley said he never intended to open the museum, but his collection started when in 1979 when his son inquired more about the history during what was then known as Black History Week.
"I started with less than 100 pieces in 1984 when I came back. We got over 5,00 items on the walls now, plus the 4,000 books next door, plus we have more than 1,000 pieces in storage," said Hadley.
The museum itself is housed in what was once Douglass High School, the African-American School during segregation.
" I will never under my watch move this museum outside of this complex. I don't care if someone offered me a million dollars. We need to keep buildings in our communities. We don't need to tear them down and move on," Hadley said.
He said it's especially important to him to see younger generations explore all that the museum has to offer.
"People need to know. They think it's chicken gravy because they don't know what we've gone through. We need to preserve the history because if we don't, kids are going to grow up to think that we never had nothing," he said.
Since its purchase of the hotel, the non-profits have raised $268,000 for renovations. Still, there's a long road ahead. Renovations on the two buildings are estimated to cost $2 million.
The Jack Hadley Black History Museum is hosting its "3rd Annual Gala – a Masquerade Fundraiser to Save the Historic Imperial Hotel" Saturday at 7 p.m. to raise money for the repairs. The event is virtual. Tickets cost $30. You can register by clicking here. All money collected goes towards renovations.