We all know and love the concept of a bed & breakfast—quaint, intimate surroundings and spontaneous connections made with innkeepers spent over coffee and blueberry muffins—and if you’re lucky, a little scrambled eggs and bacon, too.
But did you know that the concept of a “bed” for strangers in someone’s home, coupled with sending them off with a hot breakfast, is one deeply rooted in our country’s shameful past?
“During segregation we weren’t allowed to stay in any ol’ hotel,” explains Monique Greenwood, owner of Akwaaba Bed & Breakfast Inns. “It was a really dangerous and precarious situation that was humiliating at times."
So out of no way, African Americans made a way. Necessity led to the invention of a concept that has grown worldwide and is experiencing a renaissance with African American hoteliers, as documented in the OWN reality series Checked Inn starring Greenwood’s family and staff.
Greenwood shares more on how the B&B connects to Black history below:
Markette: You’re a journalist by trade—former editor-in-chief of Essence magazine. How did you get into the hospitality business?
Monique: I really fell in love with the hospitality space because I enjoy creating wonderful experiences that people would remember for a lifetime, so I started a collection of bed & breakfast inns.
I have four of them in the four cities where I love to be, one of them being Washington, DC—my hometown!
Markette: You say—the concept of the B&B is rooted in black history. How?
Monique: It’s really important to go back and look at the legacy the African American community has in creating the bed and breakfast experience.
During segregation we weren't allowed to stay in any ol’ hotel. We couldn't just roll up in there. So, we had to figure out where we could stay when we were on the road. It was a really dangerous and precarious situation that was humiliating at times.
Markette: There was something called The Negro Motorist Green Book, which was helpful at that time.
Monique: It was so important and special. It was started in 1936 by a gentleman named Victor Green and he really chronicled where people could go as Black motorists on the road—where you could eat, where you could get your gas, where you could stay for the night—and without that guide there could have been a lot of folks hiding in the bushes. There could have been lynches. It was very serious stuff.
Now, we are having the bed & breakfast experience all over again. There are more African American owners and more people are embracing the idea of staying [at B&Bs]. It’s a very intimate experience—much more so than staying at a hotel.
You need to know that you are going to feel welcomed. That there’s going to be a sense of community when you get there and that’s what makes our experience so special.
Markette: I like what you said about needing to feel welcomed and that’s the legacy you are continuing, so much so that Oprah Winfrey granted you a show on her network. That’s pretty awesome!
Monique: Yes, we have a show called Checked Inn and it really is a behind-the-scenes look at operating a family-owned bed and breakfast, but more importantly it’s about the exchange and communication and the connections that happen between us and the guests.
Markette: You recently acquired the Woolworth Mansion and you’ve said it’s the crown jewel of your properties.
Monique: Yes, yes! It’s located in the Poconos of Pennsylvania and what’s amazing about the Woolworth estate is that my own grandmother—the last thing she said to me before she died at the age of 101 was, “I couldn’t remember when I could sit at the counter at Woolworths and now my baby girl is all up in their mansion!”
Markette: And you’re not all up in there, you are owning that mansion!
Monique: I am.
Markette: We see on the reality show that owning this bed & breakfast empire is hard work and you want to continue that legacy because your grandfather was an entrepreneur right here in DC.
Monique: Absolutely. I’m a native Washingtonian and my grandfather started one of Washington, DC’s oldest black-owned businesses.
Back in the 70s it was listed on Black Enterprise’s list of Top 100 Businesses. It was a moving and storage company and he started it similarly to why bed and breakfast’s started.
The White grocer and manufacturer wouldn’t deliver his groceries, so he had to get a truck and pick them up for himself. Then he used that truck, when he wasn’t picking up groceries, to move furniture and that business became stronger and bigger and my aunt took it over and got government contracts.
Growing up in DC, I always saw these big trucks moving through the streets with my last name on the side: Greenwood’s. That’s an important, powerful and empowering legacy to have—and that’s what I hope to pass on to my daughter with Akwaaba Bed & Breakfast Inns.