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Race and Reservations

From Oliver Hill to Martin Luther King to Doug Wilder, how the struggles of the 20th century intersected at Richmond's Hotel John Marshall.

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The front of the Hotel John Marshall from Fifth Street, circa 1963. - DEMENTI STUDIO
  • Dementi Studio
  • The front of the Hotel John Marshall from Fifth Street, circa 1963.

John F. Kennedy, like millions of Americans, was glued to the television Aug. 28, 1963, while Martin Luther King Jr., on the sweltering steps of the Lincoln Memorial, declared: "I have a dream that one day ... the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood."

"He's damned good," reportedly gushed the president, who'd never heard the civil-rights leader sermonize. "Damned good!"

In Richmond, however, where the former Confederate capital was marking the ongoing Civil War centennial with events ranging from re-enactments to concerts of antebellum songs, John S. Lanahan, president of Richmond Hotels Inc., was more troubled than impressed by King's cry for racial equality.

One of Lanahan's sales reps, not realizing that King headed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, had booked the civil-rights group for a September gathering at the chain's venerable flagship, the Hotel John Marshall. So, six days after the momentous "March on Washington," Lanahan backpedaled fast to dissuade the group from holding its banquet at the hotel.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., pictured in Washington, D.C., officiated at a banquet at the Hotel John Marshall during a convention of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in September 1963. - LIBRARY OF CONGRESS
  • Library of Congress
  • The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., pictured in Washington, D.C., officiated at a banquet at the Hotel John Marshall during a convention of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in September 1963.

On Sept. 4 he fired off a letter to Wyatt Tee Walker, King's executive assistant and an organizer of the four-day SCLC convention, which would meet mostly at Virginia Union University and First African Baptist Church. Lanahan relayed fears he'd shared with Richmond's business establishment: "The consensus, because of the national publicity received in recent months, considers your group, and specifically Dr. Martin Luther King, controversial."

Lanahan informed Walker that he'd polled 30 Richmonders to determine if "the proposed meeting of your group ... on September 25 would damage the reputation of the hotel through adverse publicity."

Mostly, though, Lanahan — a savvy Harvard business grad and a popular figure on Main Street — was eyeing the bottom line. During the past few months he'd pushed hard to update the city's finest hotel to compete with national motel chains that were snaring travelers in increasing numbers off nearby interstates. Lanahan had high expectations for the John Marshall's recently expanded, $1.3 million convention center, the region's largest, and new motor entrance off East Franklin Street.

While Lanahan composed his letter to the SCLC, he probably was also anticipating the upcoming National Tobacco Festival. It was set to kick off Sept. 28, immediately following the SCLC convention. And this year was special: With the recent renovations, the John Marshall would serve as host to the festival's social highlight — the black-tie Tobacco Queen Ball, which previously had been held at The Jefferson Hotel.

In his Sept. 4 letter, Lanahan demanded SCLC's written assurance that his recent enhancements at the John Marshall wouldn't be undone. "This has nothing to do with this being a negro group," he wrote to Walker, but he still requested "the names of the speakers involved. ...We are particularly interested in the nature of the statements to be made as they reflect on the image of our hotel."

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Guests pose for a group photograph at a December 1956 State Farm banquet in the hotel's Virginia Room. For many years the room was one of the state's largest convention spaces. - DEMENTI STUDIO
  • Dementi Studio
  • Guests pose for a group photograph at a December 1956 State Farm banquet in the hotel's Virginia Room. For many years the room was one of the state's largest convention spaces.

From its elegant opening celebrations in 1929 until the years just before its demise and closing in 1988, the John Marshall was the hotel in Richmond. Well-situated at the hub of the city's upscale retail district, for a span of seven decades the hotel was host to well-heeled North Carolinians and other out-of-towners, particularly from Virginia's Southside tobacco belt, who ventured to Richmond for shopping sprees. And with the state Capitol, courts and the financial district nearby, the John Marshall was once accurately described as "the hotel of political deals and Main Street power brokers."

Hotel John Marshall, shown in 1957, has anchored the intersection of North Fifth and East Franklin streets — downtown's highest point geographically — since its completion at the start of the Great Depression in 1929. - DEMENTI STUDIO
  • Dementi Studio
  • Hotel John Marshall, shown in 1957, has anchored the intersection of North Fifth and East Franklin streets — downtown's highest point geographically — since its completion at the start of the Great Depression in 1929.

But the 16-story John Marshall also faced challenges from the start. It opened Oct. 30, 1929 — the day after the Wall Street collapse that triggered the Great Depression. Despite high standards of hospitality and service, however, by the mid-1930s the operation was unprofitable. Then, the 1950s and early 1960s brought changing travel patterns from new interstate highways. Those same decades saw percolation in civil rights. During the 1970s, downtown Richmond's once-bedrock retail base eroded as suburban malls siphoned sales. And finally, the stolid John Marshall took hits in the 1980s from flashy new downtown competitors such as the Marriott, Omni, Ramada Renaissance, now the Crowne Plaza, and the resurrected Jefferson.

In 1988 the John Marshall shut its doors after 57 years. Tepid efforts to resuscitate the hotel during the 1990s failed.

But F. Scott Fitzgerald was wrong: There are second acts in American lives. Recently, after an extensive renovation, the John Marshall has reopened as a handsome apartment complex — the Residences at the John Marshall.

And while younger Richmonders have no memory of a former grand hotel that offered the closest thing to glamour the town had known, the John Marshall's fascinating story provides a lens through which to glimpse Richmond's intriguing political, economic and particularly racial 20th century history. But while the iconic rooftop sign again reigns over the skyline with electrified brilliance, what once signaled hospitality to "whites only" was seen as a racial divide to blacks.

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At the annual Queen's Ball, Gwen Golden, the Queen of Tobaccoland in 1971, takes to the dance floor in the hotel's Virginia Room with actor John Forsythe, that year's National Tobacco Festival grand marshal. - VALENTINE RICHMOND HISTORY CENTER
  • Valentine Richmond History Center
  • At the annual Queen's Ball, Gwen Golden, the Queen of Tobaccoland in 1971, takes to the dance floor in the hotel's Virginia Room with actor John Forsythe, that year's National Tobacco Festival grand marshal.

The names Sarah Constant, Virginia Dare and Maury were all in the hat, but when the elegant hotel opened in 1929 on downtown's highest point topographically — the intersection of Fifth and Franklin streets — the sign read "John Marshall."

The program cover of the John Marshall's opening dinner, Oct. 30, 1929, features illustrations of the 16-story hotel and its main lobby. - VALENTINE RICHMOND HISTORY CENTER
  • Valentine Richmond History Center
  • The program cover of the John Marshall's opening dinner, Oct. 30, 1929, features illustrations of the 16-story hotel and its main lobby.

The prominent team that developed the hotel included Thomas Gresham and Lee Paschall of Wise Granite and Construction Co., C. N. Williams of Richmond Structural Steel Co. and D. McCarthy Thornton and James Mullen, Richmonders all. "The John Marshall reflected the city's character because it was conceived and owned by Richmonders for much of its life," newspaper reporter Randolph Smith once observed.

The hotel's completion capped a decade that produced other landmarks that rank architecturally among Richmond's most exuberant and beloved. Some, the neighboring Berry-Burk, the National, and CenterStage (the former Loew's movie palace) have been restored. Like the John Marshall, they display lavish polychrome terra-cotta tiles in hues of red, blue and gold. And while the soaring Central National Bank building (completed the same year as the John Marshall), is abandoned, it also exudes jazz-age confidence.

Opening promotions hailed the $2 million hotel (equivalent to $62 million today) as "one of the South's finest." The exterior was clad in buff-colored brick and Indiana limestone. The hotel had 400 "sun-filled" guest rooms, colored-tile bathrooms and circulating ice water in guest rooms that was chilled by an apparatus in the hotel's depths. Brochures promised "period" furniture and radios in each room. The main dining room exuded Louis XIV luxury, and the coffee shop had "the atmosphere of an open air Venetian villa." The Richmond News Leader reported approvingly that the majority of the hotel's 250 employees were white.

If by the 1940s the John Marshall had established itself as a white political and social destination, for many blacks it loomed as the ultimate symbol of Richmond's imbedded segregation. Blacks visiting the city often boarded at Jackson Ward's modest hotels, such as the Eggleston, Slaughters and the Harris.

In his autobiography, "The Big Bang: Brown v. Board of Education and Beyond," the late Oliver W. Hill Sr., a prominent local civil rights attorney, recounts an experience he had at the John Marshall sometime around 1941, shortly before he enlisted in the army during World War II.

One evening Hill had scheduled a meeting with a lawyer from Washington at the John Marshall. "The elevator operator arrived in the elevator and when he opened the door and saw me he said to me that I had to use the freight elevator," Hill writes. "With that he slammed the elevator door in my face and proceeded to another floor. I put my hand on the elevator button and held it there. ... When the elevator operator returned, I pushed my way on the elevator.

"The operator hesitated but took me to the sixth floor. I wanted to test for myself the rumor that I had heard concerning the John Marshall's alleged discriminatory policy of making Negroes ride the freight elevator," Hill continues. "I told other Negroes to refuse to ride the freight elevator."

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Richmond civil- rights lawyer Oliver Hill, shown with fellow Richmond City Councilman John S. Davenport in April 1949, stood up to the Hotel John Marshall's policy in the early 1940s of not allowing blacks to ride in the passenger elevators. - VALENTINE RICHMOND HISTORY CENTER
  • Valentine Richmond History Center
  • Richmond civil- rights lawyer Oliver Hill, shown with fellow Richmond City Councilman John S. Davenport in April 1949, stood up to the Hotel John Marshall's policy in the early 1940s of not allowing blacks to ride in the passenger elevators.

In 1949, an event was held that for decades would become synonymous with the John Marshall: the National Tobacco Festival. This salute to Virginia's signature industry included a college football game, illuminated parade, beauty pageant and a series of dances and other social events. It had its genesis not with local tobacconists, but E. Tucker Carlton, an architect.

Carlton was seeking to establish a fundraising vehicle for the Richmond Optimist Club (which met at the John Marshall), and other local nonprofits. After announcing the inaugural schedule of events, the overwhelming response required Carlton to rent space in the John Marshall to handle ticket and information demand.

That first year, Frank Sinatra was the Tobacco Festival's grand marshal. In subsequent years the event never booked a superstar, but settled for B celebrities (albeit the best of the Bs). Television was on the ascendancy and had a deep bench of personalities.

By the early 1960s, however, the John Marshall had become dowdy, its once-handsome architecture fading next to modern motels. The Executive Motor Hotel, which opened in 1960 near Willow Lawn, was boldly futuristic with broad expanses of glass overlooking the swimming pool and a handsome fountain in the lobby. "We always recommended it [the Executive] to guests over the John Marshall Hotel," says Charles Thalhimer, former executive vice chairman of Thalhimers, the department store. Ouch.

To fight back, Richmond Hotels, the John Marshall's parent, hired a young management consultant, John S. Lanahan, to update the aging operation. He directed a major renovation — transfiguration, really — of the hotel's public areas. Marcellus Wright and Son, a top-drawer local firm that had designed the original building, was the architect.

"We cocked an eye at our competition — the motels," Lanahan told a local reporter in 1963, soon after the rehab. "What did they have that we didn't? For one thing, they were less formal than the hotels, so we decided to bend a few of the time-honored hotel traditions. Guests were given the option of carrying their own luggage. We installed ice chests on each floor." The John Marshall added a new restaurant, the Captain's Grill, which became a local dining institution.

In April 1963 Gov. Albertis S. Harrison dedicated the hotel's new 20,000-square-foot convention center, the state's largest.

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Warren Keeling, Diane Dumville, Gloria Keeling and John Locke let loose at the John Marshall, celebrating Gov. A. Linwood Holton's inauguration in January 1970. The "pop" décor included oversized cans of V-8, a Holton favorite. - VALENTINE RICHMOND HISTORY CENTER
  • Valentine Richmond History Center
  • Warren Keeling, Diane Dumville, Gloria Keeling and John Locke let loose at the John Marshall, celebrating Gov. A. Linwood Holton's inauguration in January 1970. The "pop" décor included oversized cans of V-8, a Holton favorite.

With the Civil War centennial under way, and basking in the John Marshall's refurbished glory, the hotel staff braced for a slew of history-loving overnight guests. So in the summer of 1963 the last thing Lanahan envisioned was that his flagship might become the focus of civil rights fervor.

In the midst of rebuilding the hotel's image, Lanahan expressed concerns that the Southern Christian Leadership Conference convention planned for late September, less than a month after King's famous speech, would damage the hotel's reputation.

The special-collections department of Virginia Commonwealth University's Cabell Library holds correspondence between the hotel and civil rights groups regarding that meeting. In his letter to King's group, the SCLC, Lanahan asks for "written assurances ... that the meeting will be conducted in a dignified, businesslike manner without inflammatory statements and without attacks on the community." He implores Wyatt Walker, King's assistant, "to carry out a subdued program."

The SCLC banquet with the theme, "Freedom Now," was held in the Virginia Room without incident. With 500 attendees looking on, King recognized with an award the evening's entertainer, comedian Dick Gregory, for his civil rights work.

After the conference, an Oct. 22 letter from the SCLC's Walker to Heslip Lee, a Richmond civil-rights leader, suggests that the SCLC consciously chose the John Marshall as part of its agenda. "We did it!," Walker writes, "The full use of the John Marshall's facilities represents a significant break-through in human relations. ... The days ahead will be fraught with great significance."

If Lanahan had been anxious about the behavior of the SCLC at the John Marshall, it was in part because his next major booking was the National Tobacco Festival: It promised to be predictable and profitable — and white. The 1963 promotional brochure included a photo of young men on horseback at Richmond City Stadium carrying large Confederate flags. The copy read: "You'll enjoy it — Richmond at its best."

Maybe not. The festival's grand marshal that year was James Drury, the dashing star of the popular NBC series, "The Virginian." One afternoon Drury apparently got overly enthusiastic, pulled out his revolver and shot off some deafening blanks in one of the John Marshall's newly retrofitted elevators. A hotel guest, passing through the lobby, claimed loss of hearing. She sued both the hotel and Drury for $100,000 in damages. While a Richmond judge dismissed the claims against the John Marshall, Drury was fined $1,500.

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On Sept. 14, 1965, the John Marshall played host to former President Dwight Eisenhower following his Capitol Square appearance with A. Linwood Holton, who was running for governor on the Republican ticket.

Eisenhower, 74, driven by motorcade from Byrd Airport through Church Hill, entered Capitol Square in the back seat of a red convertible to a 21-gun salute. After addressing 6,000 people in his 20-minute talk on the virtues of the two-party system, he went to the John Marshall Hotel for a $50 per plate fundraising luncheon: "$5 for the meal and $45 to feed the elephant," explained a newspaper account.

"I doubt it was only $5 for the lunch, although it probably was rubber chicken and green peas," recalls Robert P. Buford, a retired Richmond lawyer. The luncheon organizer, Buford says that a portion of the $50 ticket included an embossed medallion commemorating the celebrated general's Richmond visit.

But despite the star power, Holton lost, failing to break the decades-long, conservative and Democratic hold on the Executive Mansion.

Mills E. Godwin was sworn in as governor the following January. Some years ago Godwin recalled: "On inaugural eve we drove up [to Richmond] from our home in Chuckatuck and spent the evening at the John Marshall Hotel. The next day Gov. and Mrs. Harrison came by to pick us up [for the drive to the swearing in]."

Three Novembers later, in 1968, another issue was on the ballot — "liquor by drink." This was of particular interest to the John Marshall. Heretofore Virginians could be served only beer and wine in restaurants. The measure passed by a 3-1 margin.

On Dec. 18, the first legal drink in Richmond since Prohibition was served at the John Marshall's Captain's Grill. Lanahan, who had lobbied for the bill, invited Robert P. Buford, the lawyer who'd drafted the measure, to the hotel for a celebration. "We thought that we would be the first served in Virginia, but someone came into the hotel from Newport News who apparently had already been sold a drink," Buford says.

The following year, Lanahan left Richmond to become president of Flagler Systems Inc., a hotel chain whose flagship was the Breakers in Palm Beach.

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On election night, June 10, 1970, people gather at the John Marshall's Roof Garden to watch City Council election returns. - VALENTINE RICHMOND HISTORY CENTER

The second time was the charm for Holton. And the John Marshall was the scene of his victory party when he was elected governor in November 1969, breaking the lock of the conservative Byrd Machine.

Preceding the inauguration on Jan. 17, 1970, Holton and his family were ensconced at the John Marshall. "Suite 1103 up on the corner was the choice location," Holton told Style Weekly in 2010. "We had been there on election night. There's where I received a telephone call from President Nixon. He was very elated because it looked like his efforts to build a national [Republication] party were growing with my election and Bill Cahill's election in New Jersey."

Inaugural morning, outgoing Gov. Mills E. Godwin, and his wife, Katherine, came to the hotel: "It was traditional for the incumbent governor to escort the governor-elect in an open car," Holton says. "It was a quiet drive."

Holton's victory was historic, but another election in late 1969 would prove more trailblazing. In December, a special election was held to fill the Richmond state Senate seat vacated when J. Sargeant Reynolds was elected lieutenant governor. L. Douglas Wilder, a Richmond lawyer and partner of Oliver Hill Sr., was elected to the state Senate and became the first African-American to serve in that body.

One evening in early 1970, toward the end of his first term as state senator, Wilder and his wife stormed out of a reception for legislators when "Carry Me Back to Old Virginia" was played. The next day on the floor of the senate Wilder demanded repeal of the official song with its lyrics that romanticized slavery.

Later that evening, wrote Dwayne Yancey in his book, "When Hell Froze Over: The Untold Story of Doug Wilder," Junie Bradshaw, a Richmond representative to the House of Delegates, approached Wilder in the John Marshall lobby: "Doug, why in the world did you do that? Why'd you rip your britches with your Senate colleagues?"

Wilder invited Bradshaw to join him at the Captain's Grill. "When I was a college student at Virginia Union, working my way through college as a waiter here at the John Marshall, they'd have these conventions then and those conventioneers would have too many drinks at the cocktail party and then at dinner stand up and sing that song and then in the next breath, turn to me and say, 'Hey, boy, give me a cup of coffee.'"

Bradshaw, who said Wilder had tears in his eyes, responded: "Doug, you have taught me a lesson."

The song was retired from official use in 1997.

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Former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder (center) helped pay his way through Virginia Union University by waiting tables at the John Marshall. - VALENTINE RICHMOND HISTORY CENTER
  • Valentine Richmond History Center
  • Former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder (center) helped pay his way through Virginia Union University by waiting tables at the John Marshall.

Election night, Nov. 5, 1985, was different from anything anyone had experienced at the John Marshall. L. Douglas Wilder, by the thinnest of margins, became the first African-American to be elected to statewide office since Reconstruction.

While the Democratic ticket watched the returns in a hotel room together, Gerald Baliles and Mary Sue Terry, the candidates for governor and attorney general, respectively, were assured of victory. And although Wilder's returns were too close to call, incumbent Gov. Charles Robb was adamant that the trio of candidates head down to the hotel's Virginia Room to make the 11 p.m. news.

Wilder stalled, even going to the bathroom repeatedly, fearing the contest was too close to call.

"You didn't have to send for room service for egos," Terry's media adviser Bob Squier later said.

Finally, sensing victory, Wilder acquiesced. To shouts of "Doug, Doug, Doug," Wilder took the stage: "When I used to listen to political speeches as I would wait tables on this floor, as well as in the gallery," he told the jubilant throng, "little did I believe one day I just might be your lieutenant governor."

Four years later, in 1989, Wilder was elected governor. But for that victory party the Democrats had moved on to a glitzy new downtown hotel, the Marriott. The John Marshall had closed its doors the previous year. S

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