Site #9, Walking the East End, Part One

Magnolia House front

This corner location, which still operates as a boarding house, may be one of the East End’s most celebrated sites.

The 19-room Magnolia House stood on the fringes, but thrived for more than a half-century beginning in 1866. That was when an entrepreneur named Moses G. Hepburn obtained his hotel license with the help of a West Chester judge, John Hickman, a former congressman and state legislator who was an early advocate of civil rights.

Hepburn was described in 1897 as the “wealthiest and best-known colored man in Chester County.” He built his brick hotel in 1860 and welcomed all “permanent and transient boarders,” as one reporter put it in 1892, but was best known for hosting “prominent colored personages.”

Another reporter recalled the time when, around 1880, Frederick Douglass “registered at the Magnolia House and expressed himself quite pleased to find such a fine hotel for the accommodation of the colored race.”

Historian Robert Bussel writes of Hepburn’s “ongoing contact” with such people as Douglass, “the journalist William Howard Day and visiting members of the black clergy,” who all helped him prepare for what was described as a “leadership role” within the black community. That included serving as the borough’s first black councilman in 1882.

Hepburn operated the Magnolia House for 30 years until his untimely death at the age of 65 years, on the night of December 1, 1897. It is believed that he was living at the time across the street, at 331 East Miner. One paper described his death as being a bit “strange,” having been witnessed by his “dear friends, Capt. Levi Hood, Solomon Hazard, and Nathan Priggs.”

The account was as follows: “That day two strange white men came into the hotel. There were words between Mr. Hepburn and one of the strangers. Mr. Hepburn staggered back into the living room and died.” There were “no wounds,” the account noted.

On December 6, 1897, Hepburn was laid out, “clad in the uniform of a Knight Templar and with the hat and sword of the order reposing on the cloth-covered coffin,” [decorated] with engraved Masonic marks and emblems.” There were 12 pallbearers, six of whom were fellow members of the Masonic order; the other six friends included James Spence, Levi Hood, and Solomon Hazard. Soon after, Hepburn’s son-in-law, John Wesley Smothers, took over the hotel and managed it for several more decades.

 

From the Philadelphia Inquirer: 

The Magnolia Hotel once stood on the fringes of West Chester, but thrived during the second half of the 19th century.

Here is an account of its owner, Moses G. Hepburn, Jr.

HOTELIER WAS A COMMUNITY LEADER by Catherine Quillman

In the mid-1800s, out-of-towners had their pick of places to stay in Chester County.

The county seat alone had at least five well-established hotels that catered to a wide range of travelers. Some openly appealed to a certain clientele, such as the aptly named Farmer’s Hotel on West Market and New Streets.

All but one of these hotels claimed the best locations – in the center of town.

The 19-room Magnolia House stood on the fringes, but thrived for more than a half-century beginning in 1866. That was when an entrepreneur named Moses G. Hepburn, Jr. obtained his hotel license with the help of a West Chester judge, John Hickman, a former congressman and state legislator who was an early advocate of civil rights.

Hepburn was described in 1897 as the “wealthiest and best-known colored man in Chester County.” He built his brick hotel in 1860 and welcomed all “permanent and transient boarders,” as one reporter put it in 1892, but was best known for hosting “prominent colored personages.”

In the 1998 summer issue of Pennsylvania History, historian Robert Bussel notes that it was described in its early years as “a three-story brick building, containing nineteen rooms, well-furnished and in good condition, and stabling for fifteen horses.”

The building, which still stands at Miner and Adams Street, was then part of a community known as Georgetown named for John George, an abolitionist and early landlord who rented exclusively to blacks.

Hepburn, whose own landholdings in the area would soon exceed George’s, was not the first black business owner to find success in West Chester, but he was clearly the most influential figure in the black community.

Two restaurateurs – Charles Burns and James Spence – were among Hepburn’s contemporaries who contributed to the vitality of the black business community that would, by 1910, earn its own chapter in a statewide directory of “Negro businesses.”

Still, Hepburn, who was born around 1832 in Alexandria, Va., was perhaps the only black resident to have arrived in West Chester supported by a “bequest of several thousand dollars,” according to one account.

Hepburn inherited the money from his father, a former slave. He first came to West Chester in 1818 to attend school and returned in 1853.

Within a few years, he was not only the spokesman for the black community, but he was first to see and acknowledge segregation in the business community.

In an 1868 application to obtain a liquor license, Hepburn pleaded that his should be granted since “the public houses now established refuse to entertain this class of people [blacks] visiting the town . . .”

Prior to opening his hotel, Hepburn briefly ran a restaurant near the courthouse that he later sold to Spence. He also operated an “omnibus” service that brought people to and from the local railroad station.

Hepburn had a lifelong association with leading black Americans. One reporter recalled the time when, around 1880, Frederick Douglass “registered at the Magnolia House and expressed himself quite pleased to find such a fine hotel for the accommodation of the colored race.”

Historian Bussel writes of Hepburn’s “ongoing contact” with such people as Douglass, “the journalist William Howard Day and visiting members of the black clergy,” who all helped him prepare for a “leadership role” within the black community. That included serving as the borough’s first black councilman in 1882.

Copyright 2003 The Philadelphia Inquirer

All Rights Reserved

The Philadelphia Inquirer

2 thoughts on “Site #9, Walking the East End, Part One”

    1. That’s really neat. Does it have the words on it “Magnolia Hotel” on it? If so it dates at least to right after the Civil War. Moses Hepburn, the hotel owner and founder, was born in 1832 and died (perhaps killed) in 1897.

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