After Betty Dobson welcomed the Jackson Purchase Historical Society (JPHS) to Paducah’s Hotel Metropolitan for the organization’s March meeting, she stepped aside to let her alter-ego, Maggie Steed, talk about the landmark’s history.
The original owner of The Metropolitan, Mrs. Steed landed in Paducah in the late 1800s. Before that, she’d worked in hotels in Indiana and Kentucky and understood the rules of Jim Crow and what they meant for African Americans. Recognizing the need for safe haven in Paducah, she envisioned owning a hotel where African Americans could stay when they were on the road.
When Maggie Steed could not get a bank loan to finance her dream – “Because she was a woman,” Betty Dobson explained – Mrs. Steed used her ingenuity.
The banker insisted that her husband needed to sign the loan, and Mrs. Steed promised to comply. She took the form home and came back with her husband’s signature on the document. No matter that he’d died four years before. Once she returned to the bank with the signed paperwork, her vision began to take shape.
In its heyday, “the firmament of African American celebrities and scholars stayed here,” Mrs. Dobson said, adding that the hotel was a familiar stop on the Chitlin’ Circuit.
The Metropolitan was built around 1907, and in 1908, when the Golden Jubilee of Colored Baptists met in Paducah, the hotel was in business. Over the years it was host to world famous African Americans, including Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, B.B. King, Nat King Cole, Mahalia Jackson, Sam Cooke, James Brown, Little Richard, and Jackie Wilson, to name some of the stars.
Over the years, wear and tear took its toll. In 1999, when the building was condemned and in danger of demolition, the Uppertown Heritage Foundation and Betty Dobson stepped in.
“This is the twentieth year of keeping The Metropolitan going,” Mrs. Dobson said. She also credited JPHS President, Dr. William Mulligan, for advice and guidance that helped make the hotel a tourist attraction and historic destination.
Their efforts have paid off, and in 2019 the NAACP state convention met at The Metropolitan, restored to its former glory.
Tours of the building are led by re-enactors, like Betty Dobson as the remarkable Maggie Steed.
A recent article in “Paducah Life” included a memorable quote from Betty Dobson about the Metropolitan. “Paducah and this hotel were well-known,” she remarked. “Once you got here, you could rest easy. You could find a place to actually get a room where there were people who would take care of you, feed you, and encourage you along the way.”
Whether Betty is speaking for herself or for the indomitable Maggie Steed, she makes sure that whoever comes to The Metropolitan is cared for and encouraged to take the tour.
“When they grab the stairwell, they’re grabbing the same stairwell that all those famous people — Ike and Tina Turner, Billie Holiday, Thurgood Marshall – they all had their hands on this particular railing going up to their rooms,” said Mrs. Dobson.
“It’s an example of what people can do when they set their minds to it,” according to JPHS President Mulligan.
In 2018, Betty Dobson was honored by Kentucky Foundation for Women with the Sallie Bingham Award. She was recognized for her tireless work preserving and interpreting African American history at the Metropolitan. A community activist from a young age, Betty Dobson has fostered partnerships with multiple organizations over the years aiming to ensure that the historic significance of the hotel, and African American history, continue to inform and inspire every generation.
The Hotel Metropolitan is at 724 Oscar Cross Avenue, Paducah, KY 42003. The phone is 270-443-7918. Additional information is on their Facebook page and also at https://cityofpaducah.com/places/hotel-metropolitan/.