In 1909, 24-year-old widow Maggie Steed saw a business opportunity in Paducah. The thriving African-American community was in need of a hotel. In the days of segregation, African-Americans could not buy rooms at white hotels.
The Hotel Metropolitan was the first hotel in Paducah operated by and for African-Americans. “It symbolizes a cultural oasis in a time of segregation, and was a stop along the old Chitlin’ Circuit for traveling musicians who weren’t allowed to access white hotels,” said J.D. Wilkes, author of “Barn Dances and Jamborees Across Kentucky.”
Winfred J. Nunn of Paducah describes the thriving Upper Town business district of the day. “You had two churches on each corner, had several black businesses, a drugstore, funeral home, two insurance companies, taxicab stand, nightclubs,” he said.
But Maggie Steed was turned away on her first attempt to build. “They told her that she couldn’t build a hotel because she was a woman,” said Betty Dobson, director of the Hotel Metropolitan Museum. Undeterred, Maggie went back using her late husband’s name and got the hotel built.
“It took a lot of extra gumption,” said Regina Topp, president of the Upper Town Heritage Foundation.
Guests over the years included many legends of the Jazz Age and beyond: Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, B.B. King, Bobby “Blue” Bland, and Ike and Tina Turner.
So many musicians came that the hotel built a juke joint in the back, called the Purple Room. “They would have a drink, sit and pick. It was a pretty wild place back in the day,” said Wilkes.
Winfred Nunn, who lived a block away, recalled how his mother enjoyed the music from their home. “She’d open the windows and we could hear the music all night long in the summer time,” he said.
Other notable guests included future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, the Harlem Globetrotters, and members of the Negro Baseball League, including Satchel Paige.
When segregation ended, the hotel became a rooming house. In 1951 the hotel was purchased by the Gaines family, who donated the building to the Upper Town Heritage Foundation.
The hotel is now an African-American museum, open by appointment. Plus, the hotel still offers overnight accommodations with breakfast the next morning.
“When I look back on the history of the hotel, I’m in awe,” said Betty Dobson, hotel director. “You know, how a woman, who had very little resources, could put together a hotel that would mean so much to so many people along the way. When I think about it, I’m wondering would there have been a Cab Calloway or Louis Armstrong, had there not been Maggie to kind of give them incentive to go on.”
This segment is part of Kentucky Life episode #2010, which originally aired on February 14, 2015. Watch the full episode.