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The Charlottesville motel that housed MLK has been razed, but it may rise again

The motel that housed civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. on his only trip to Charlottesville has been razed after spending several years in ruins after a gutting fire. After a monthlong demolition process that provided some spectacle at the foot of Carr’s Hill on Emmet Street, crews removed the rubble last week.

For one of the men who invited King to Charlottesville, the news evokes sorrow but not surprise.

“I’m certainly sad, but things change,” Wesley Harris, now a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told The Daily Progress.

Harris and the late University of Virginia professor Paul Gaston invited the future icon of American history to UVa Grounds to speak on March 25, 1963. Just two weeks before King was arrested in Birmingham for peacefully defying a ban on segregation protests, King spoke in Old Cabell Hall Auditorium.

“Noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good,” King told the crowd. “If democracy is to live, segregation must die.”

“It was intellectually, emotionally, the highlight of my life at that point — and certainly the highlight of my experiences on Grounds of the University of Virginia,” Harris says today. “He didn’t give us a sermon; he gave a philosophy.”

King also gave Harris a scare.

As Harris, Gaston and Gaston’s wife walked with King along Newcomb Road, they passed a stone retaining wall at what’s now called Brown College. Suddenly, a loud blast like a gunshot rang out. Gaston, who was white, reacted with calm; but the young Black man quickly shielded King against the wall.

“It turned out it was only a car backfiring,” said Harris.

Sixty years later, Harris explained why he leapt into action.

“As a Southerner, I had been exposed to a lot of harmful things done to Black leaders,” Harris said. “It’s sort of built into my generation. You don’t think, you act.”

The group remained unscathed, and King arrived safely at the 40-room Gallery Court Motor Hotel, built beside the railroad tracks in 1951.

At the time of King’s visit and until 2005 — when the parents of the current owner gave it a makeover — the motel’s unadorned architecture included flat roofs and open-air walkways. Such features were similar to the place where King was assassinated five years later: the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.

But for one man in Charlottesville, the Gallery Court was not just the place where he would meet King; it was also his residence.

“In 1963, I was junior at Jackson P. Burley High School, and that motel was my home away from home,” Richard L. Jones told The Daily Progress sitting on the front porch of his Ridge Street-area home.

“I was 15 when I started working there during the day,” said Jones. “I was a bellhop.”

With dwelling space back home limited because it was shared with another family in a now-demolished house in what became known as the Vinegar Hill urban renewal zone, Jones agreed to sleep in a utility room in the back of the motel. He said he was provided an iron bed between a pair of 500-gallon water heaters.

“I’m blessed they never exploded,” said Jones.

Subsequently, the night clerk fell ill, so Jones took over as the overnight front desk clerk. That’s how the hardworking high school student came to meet the famed civil rights leader.

“He came in with his entourage,” said Jones, naming Ralph Abernathy, Jesse Jackson and Wyatt Tee Walker.

“Rev. Walker was the one who came in and checked in,” recalled Jones. “After about 10 minutes, Dr. King came down the stairs and came into the office. I recognized him, but I didn’t make no big conversation because I’m in awe. I didn’t know how to take it at 17 years old.”

“He asked me, ‘Are you running this motel?’ And I said, ‘Yes, sir.’”

“He said, “You go to school?’ and I said, ‘Yes, sir.’”

“He said, “When do you go to school?’ And I said, ‘In the morning when I get off.’”

“He said, ‘Oh, really? How old are you again?’ And I said ‘17.’”

Jones said that King then asked about his next steps. Finances prevented college, and a hearing impairment prevented him from following his friends into war in Vietnam. So Jones remained in Charlottesville, where he pursued other things, including a 30-year career as a Charlottesville firefighter.

Not long before Jones began working there, the Gallery Court was advertising its proximity to a Howard Johnson’s restaurant plus TVs and “radio clocks” in every room. Today, at 78, Jones looks back at his motel work with appreciation.

“At that time the Gallery Court was the king of the hill,” said Jones. “You never knew who would come in.”

Jones recalled that the hotel was integrated, a local rarity back then, and it played host to musicians such as Odetta and the Kingsmen.

In recent years, the motel has operated under several names, including the Budget Inn and the Excel Inn & Suites. However, the hospitality was halted on the afternoon of May 4, 2017, when a mysterious fire gutted the building.

Until this month’s demolition, the skeletal rubble has loomed over Emmet Street, a blot on the place that UVa officials have called the university’s “front door.”

Since the mid-1980s, the university’s real estate foundation has been buying both sides of Emmet Street. First to fall was a Chevron station at the Ivy Road intersection in 2011. Next was the building that housed UVa offices and a long-closed restaurant called Buddy’s. Most recently, UVa tore down the buildings that held the Italian Villa restaurant and the Cavalier Inn.

In the same area, the city has recently started its $12.1 million Emmet Streetscape, a state-funded assortment of mobility improvements including wider sidewalks, underground utilities and a new shared-used path across from the Gallery Court site.

The Gallery Court is the lone holdout in an area that will link the university’s Central and North grounds. There, along Ivy Road, UVa has amassed over 14 acres where the home for UVa’s School of Data Science is already rising, as is UVa’s own 214-room, $130.5 million hotel and conference center.

It turns out that the Gallery Court could rise again, but this time as a larger and more upscale enterprise. Vipul Patel, the son of the former owners, has earned city approval to construct a seven-story, 72-room replacement on the 0.58-acre site. While he appears to be the person who hired Pleasant View Developers LLC to raze the structure, Patel declined to discuss his timeline with The Daily Progress.

The demolition comes about a dozen years after the demolition of a brick building next door that housed Buddy’s, a whites-only restaurant picketed just a few weeks after King’s speech and whose owner chose to close rather than integrate.

These two demolitions caught the eye of Christine Madrid French, a UVa-educated architectural historian now living in San Francisco. French was in Charlottesville on Friday celebrating her son’s impending UVa graduation.

“What I noticed about that corner was that a very critical part of civil rights history has been erased from Charlottesville,” French told The Daily Progress. “By the loss of those buildings, the tangible connection to the past is gone.”

For Harris, the student who shielded King against the stone wall, there is hope of commemoration. In 2017, he and his brother, Bill Harris, also an educator, dedicated the bronze plaque they commissioned to commemorate King’s speech in Old Cabell Hall. And Wesley Harris has expressed an eagerness to do something similar at a new Gallery Court.

Now holding a distinguished chair as the Charles Stark Draper Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT, Harris wants to remember King’s visit to Charlottesville and how it changed the life of at least one young man.

“It was an existential moment for me,” said Harris, “as a Black student from the east side of Richmond.”


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