How John Whitelaw Lewis built the first luxury hotel for African Americans in 1919

Stephen Nartey April 17, 2023
John Whitelaw Lewis/Photo credit: @ericabuddington via Twitter

He defied the racial segregation that was prevalent in the United States during the mid-twentieth century. Aware of the odds that were against him, John Whitelaw Lewis’s first hurdle as a son of an enslaved African was to learn how to read and write at a time when such opportunities were non-existent to black children. However, to impact the lives of the black community, he took up jobs in the construction sector as a brick carrier.

As his experience in the real estate business deepened, he formed the local laborers union and assisted many African Americans to save funds to purchase homes. To expand this dream project, he established a laborers’ building and loan association to enable African Americans to access soft loans to put up their own buildings.

When his dream to help African Americans have access to proper accommodation began taking shape in 1913, he set up the first black-owned bank in the district, which was known as the Industrial Savings Bank. He relied on one of the nation’s first registered African American architects, Isaiah T. Hatton, to put up his bank. Six years later, John wasn’t happy with how African American guests were turned away from white-owned hotels.

To right this wrong, he engaged Isaiah once again to put up a hotel wholly built by black laborers, according to the Washington Post. On the day of commissioning, at least 20,000 people showed up to marvel at the five-star luxury hotel christened, the “Whitelaw“. The cost of the facility was pegged at $158,000 and opened in November 1919. Based on the architectural design, the Whitelaw had 25 one-bedroom apartments and 22 hotel rooms.

John grew up in an era of Jim Crow laws that institutionalized racial segregation in the United States. Despite the challenges that he faced as a black man in a society that was deeply divided along racial lines, he managed to build a successful career in business. He worked as a real estate broker and developer and eventually became instrumental in helping the black community to define their space in a segregated society.

It was for this reason that he turned his attention to the hospitality industry, which was one of the most segregated sectors of the economy. African-Americans were often denied access to hotels, restaurants, and other public accommodations, which limited their ability to travel and do business. Lewis saw an opportunity to address this problem by building a hotel that would cater exclusively to black guests.

He partnered with a group of black investors, and together, raised the funds to build the Whitelaw Hotel, which was a popular destination for tourists and businessmen at the time. The Whitelaw was designed to be a luxury hotel that would offer African-Americans the same amenities and services that were available to white guests at other hotels, and quickly became a symbol of pride and achievement for the black community.

It was a place where African-American families could enjoy a vacation without fear of discrimination or harassment. The hotel was also popular with black celebrities and business leaders, who appreciated the opportunity to stay in a first-class hotel that was owned and operated by members of their own community.

Over the years, the Whitelaw Hotel became a cultural landmark. It hosted concerts, weddings, and other events, and was often featured in magazines and newspapers. Despite facing many challenges and setbacks over the years, including the decline of the segregated hotel industry and the civil rights movement, the Whitelaw remained open until the 1970s.

Today, the hotel is remembered as a testament to the resilience and determination of John and the black community in Miami. Lewis’s vision and leadership helped to create a space where African-Americans could enjoy the same opportunities and experiences as white Americans, despite the barriers of segregation and discrimination. His legacy continues to inspire people who seek to make a positive difference in their communities, regardless of the challenges they face.

Last Edited by:Annie-Flora Mills Updated: April 17, 2023


Must Read

Connect with us

Join our Mailing List to Receive Updates