The Whitelaw Hotel in Washington, D.C., was once a luxury hotel that served black travelers, from Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway to Pullman porters. Often referred to as the “Black White House,” it was a place of refuge during the era of segregation, but its history is all but forgotten.
The Dresser Trunk Project, a new exhibit organized by UVA architecture professor William Daryl Williams, deals with this particular chapter in our cultural past, unpacking stories much like a suitcase emptying its contents.
Williams created a trunk representing the Whitelaw, one of 11 trunks that symbolize a ring of 11 cities along Amtrak’s Southern Crescent Line, from New Orleans to New York, and the safe havens that black travelers found. Sometimes asylum was a train station or a nightclub, or a Negro League baseball park. Within each case are stories of those who passed through, including photographs, maps, hotel registers and other reminders of these locales, many of them razed or left to ruin. The project, a collaboration among artists, architects and landscape architects, is intended to link these isolated venues and show their place in architectural, musical and cultural history.
In Charlottesville, the only hotel listed for black travelers in the Negro Motorist guide was the Carver Inn, frequented by the likes of Count Basie and Louis Armstrong. Demolished long ago, the building inspired a dresser trunk created by architect Lisa Henry Benham. View it and other trunks when the exhibit makes a stop at the UVA Art Museum Nov. 3 through Dec. 23.