MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Norland and Amina James are used to taking people by surprise.
"No one ever asks us if we're the owners. They always ask us if we're the managers. I know why though," Amina James said.
As new owners of the Quality Inn Hotel in Raleigh, they join the small group of African Americans who make up 2% of hotel owners in the country. You may not believe it, but their partnership started from a botched blind date.
"She was getting ready to kick me to the curb," Norland James said.
"Glad I didn't," Amina James said.
"I was almost not here," Norland James said.
The New Yorker with a doctorate degree married the Georgia military man with experience in long term rentals. Together, they ventured into the world of short-term property ownership.
"We spent three years really learning the business," Amina James said. "In 2019, we set the goal that in 2022 we wanted to buy our own hotel. We went around the neighborhood. We stayed here ourselves. We talked to people. We stood out there in the parking lot and talked to guests as they were coming out. We found this hotel in April 2022, and we just closed in December 2022."
Black-owned hotels have a long and rich history in Memphis, particularly in the 1940s and 50s; most notably the Lorraine Motel in 1945.
"The Lorraine Motel was purchased by an African American business couple. A couple well ahead of their time named Walter and Loree Bailey," Associate Curator Ryan Jones said.
Jones works where the Lorraine Motel is preserved now, as the National Civil Rights Museum.
"It was the first African American lodging that had air conditioning in each of their guest rooms as well as a swimming pool, and the Baileys also had one of the greatest diners that were sought out after many celebrities," Jones said. "Isaac Hayes when he was at Stax Records ate here and again, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was very fond of the Lorraine on the three separate occasions in which he traveled to Memphis between the years of 1966 and 1968."
"Back then when racism and open discrimination was widespread, there were not a lot of places for Black individuals and families to stop and be able to feel safe while traveling," Black Business Association of Memphis President Ernest Strickland said.
Strickland points to the importance of The Green Book - the Black traveler's bible for safe accommodations during Jim Crow. The 1957 copy has nine different hotels and restaurants listed in Memphis.
"There were hotels such as the Mitchells Hotel, which was owned by a gentlemen by the name of Andrew Sunbeam Mitchell and his wife," Strickland said. "They opened a hotel in 1944, and it was 30 rooms. They really catered to the musicians the artists that would come in; artists such as B.B. King and Count Basie and W.C. Handy would come."
"It was Black-owned banks. It was other wealthy Black entrepreneurs that would give their counterparts these opportunities to make a better life for African Americans in the South," Jones said.
"Many of the same barriers that exist to Black individuals and entrepreneurs owning businesses are even more of a barrier when it comes to hotel ownership because of the specialty in the high cost of capitol associated with acquisition and operation," Strickland said.
That's part of the reason why there are less than 600 Black hotel owners in America today.
"You have to have relationships with lenders who are willing to give you a $4 million loan, cause that's not, especially for us, that's not something that's easy to do," Amina James said.
The James' $3.8 million deal secured more than just the hotel, which is why they chose the Raleigh neighborhood.
"We're sitting on real estate, so we didn't just buy a building - we bought land. So, that's a really, when it comes to building generational wealth for Blacks in America, real estate land has been the number one driver," Amina James said. "It's a good price to get in at this time and actually appraised higher than we paid for it, so the outlook on the land around here is good."
"It's of course, we all want to make money. It's also building the neighborhood, what can we do to help others?" Norland James said.
The James have a $500,000 improvement plan to renovate the Quality Inn to make the 70 room hotel more profitable years down the line if they choose to sell.