Preserving Black History and hospitality in Mercer County, West Virginia

Last updated: May 31, 2023

Located at the intersection of Logan and Wayne Streets on the north side of Bluefield, West Virginia — Hotel Thelma was more than just a hotel. The building stood as a symbol of hope and hospitality for the Black community, and offered refuge for Black travelers visiting the cosmopolitan city.

In 1947, the ambitious Thelma Stone walked into Flat Top National Bank to apply for a loan. Despite the discrimination faced by African Americans during this time, Thelma was able to secure a loan to purchase land and build a building. Learning entrepreneurship from her mother, Janie, who owned the Green Leaf Restaurant on Bland Street in Bluefield, Thelma soon transformed her business into a successful enterprise while fostering a warm and welcoming community atmosphere. 

Hotel Thelma was one of two hotels owned by an African American in Bluefield and listed in the Green Book. From 1936 to 1967, the Green Book served as a navigation guide for African Americans to help them safely navigate the Jim Crow era in the United States. The guide pointed travelers to businesses that would serve Black people, from hotels and restaurants to auto repair shops and more. Thelma would eventually go on to own the other hotel in Bluefield (Travelers’ Inn) as well as a restaurant, grocery store and apartments. 

Hotel Thelma in Bluefield, West Virginia

As busy as she was, Thelma, known as “Mama Thelma,” also helped raise her great-niece Dr. Carolyn Foster Bailey Lewis in an apartment in the Hotel Thelma. 

Dr. Lewis described Hotel Thelma as a “happening place.” The hotel was located across the street from the Norfolk & Western Rail Yard, roughly 15 miles from the nearest coal mine and within walking distance of Bluefield State University. 

“The railroad yard was just a stone throw away and before integration, workers, as well as Black performers coming to the area, couldn’t stay at any of the hotels in Bluefield, so they came to Hotel Thelma,” Dr. Lewis said. 

Amidst the challenges of segregation and in recognition of its exceptional quality, Hotel Thelma became a popular overnight stay for Black entertainers during the 1950s and 1960s. The establishment welcomed a talented roster of emerging Black jazz and pop musicians, including James Brown, Little Richard (Thelma’s great-aunt Edith Morgan even styled his hair), Etta James, Sam Cooke and many others. 

“One of the shows that James Brown did was a family show and he called people on stage to dance,” Dr. Lewis said. “And guess who was bold enough to go up there and dance – me!”

After thrilling audiences at the Bluefield Auditorium, these musical icons found solace and hospitality at Hotel Thelma. At that time, they had not achieved the widespread recognition they are now famous for. These artists were making their mark on the Chitlin Circuit, a network of modest venues located throughout the eastern and southern regions of the United States, including Bluefield, West Virginia. They made frequent returns to the area and Hotel Thelma, with repeat guests such as Ike and Tina Turner, who made it a point to always book Room 22.

“I remember going to take some food to Ike and Tina Turner’s room and they gave me a dollar tip, which was big at the time,” Dr. Lewis said. 

Mama Thelma’s connection to the community was further strengthened through her love of food, which Dr. Lewis remembers fondly.

Photo from Black Southern Belle

“She would get up in the morning at about 5 o’clock and start the big old coal stove,” Dr. Lewis said. 

Mama Thelma was dedicated to ensuring her guests were well-nourished, from warm breakfast biscuits to hearty pots of beans. Dr. Lewis holds cherished memories of helping her aunt with tasks such as shucking corn, stringing beans and preparing chitlins.

Dr. Lewis carries a special place in her heart for the macaroni and cheese and fried chicken served by her aunt. Despite repeated attempts, she has been unable to perfectly replicate Mama Thelma’s closely guarded recipe for the perfectly crispy and flavorful fried chicken.

“I still cook like her. Almost,” Dr. Lewis said. “I just can’t get the chicken right. She fried chicken like nobody’s business.”

Mama Thelma’s Christmas dinners were also a highly anticipated event, eagerly awaited by hotel guests, residents in the adjacent apartments, members of the community, students from Bluefield State Unversity, and even the occasional coal miner and railroad worker. Hotel Thelma provided not only a warm and inviting place to stay, but also a delicious and satisfying meal. 

Dr. Carolyn Foster Bailey Lewis

During the holiday season, Mama Thelma would quietly prepare boxes filled with essentials such as shirts, socks and fruit cakes, to be sent to those in prison. It was her way of spreading kindness to those in need.

“She knew how to help people along the way, as she made her own way as well,” Dr. Lewis said. “She would give the clothes off her back to others.” 

Thelma passed her strength and determination to her great-niece. Dr. Lewis has gone on to earn the title of many firsts, including the first African American woman to graduate with a degree in journalism from West Virginia University (WVU), the first African American woman to serve as general manager of a full-service public television station in the United States, the first African American woman to represent the WVU Alumni Board of Directors on the WVU Athletic Council and numerous other notable titles. She has also enjoyed an outstanding career as an academic and is a published author. Dr. Lewis will be inducted into the Academy of Distinguished Alumni at WVU in May. 

Despite her many achievements, Dr. Lewis remains most animated when reminiscing about her childhood experiences in Bluefield. With the current efforts to revitalize the city, she hopes to see Hotel Thelma restored. The hotel was, and remains, a testament to the fortitude and perseverance of one woman, and a shining example of the resilience of the human spirit. In addition, Dr. Lewis is currently working on a novel about Mama Thelma’s life to further preserve her legacy.