(This article was written by Archives staff for the February issue of East Bradford Neighbors.)
The Magnolia House at the southeast corner of Miner and Franklin Streets in West Chester, circa 1966. This photo is part of the Lorraine Carstairs Pierce Collection at the Chester County Historical Society Photo Archives, West Chester, PA.
Throughout his accomplished life, Moses Garrison Hepburn (1831-1897) elevated himself from the son of a former enslaved person to one of West Chester’s most notable men of the nineteenth century. Hepburn established himself in West Chester’s African American community of the mid-to-late-nineteenth century, serving as innkeeper, businessman, real estate investor, political organizer, and borough council member—being the first Black member elected to West Chester’s Borough Council in 1882.
Although Hepburn did not live in West Chester until his adult life, he quickly became a respected leader because he invested in an often overlooked and underserved community on the fringes of town. Hepburn opened the Magnolia House—a small, three-story brick inn with nineteen rooms located at 300 East Miner Street in West Chester—in 1866. Tavern and innkeepers were required by law to obtain a liquor license annually, and they applied for a license by petitioning the local county court. In his 1868 petition, Hepburn explicitly stated his motivations for the new business. At a time of racial discrimination and segregation in American towns and cities north and south, Hepburn marketed his Magnolia House as the place African Americans seeking accommodations in West Chester could stay.
“[T]he said Borough stands in pressing need of an Inn or Tavern for the entertainment of people of color. That the public houses now established refuse to entertain this claim of people visiting the town, and they are consequently driven to seek accommodations in private families and inconvenient places.”
Historically, many crossroads and villages throughout Chester County developed around a local tavern or inn because it was an important public place to exchange ideas and form social connections. Hepburn’s Magnolia House was no exception as it served the predominantly Black neighborhood on the east end of town, commonly referred to as Georgetown. The business brought steady revenues to the neighborhood and even attracted prominent figures to visit the area, including Frederick Douglass who stayed at the Magnolia House during his 1875 visit to West Chester. Hepburn’s investment in the Georgetown neighborhood made him a natural leader for West Chester’s Black citizens. He continued to operate the hotel and serve his community until his death in 1897 when his son-in-law John W. Smothers took over the hotel.
Tavern petitions filed with the Chester County Court of Quarter Sessions between 1700 and 1923 are housed at the Chester County Archives and Records Services, 601 Westtown Road, Suite 080. The Archives is open to the public Monday – Friday, 9:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. For more information and online indexes, please visit www.chesco.org/archives. The newspaper clippings files and photo archives at the Chester County Historical Society library include countless items documenting the history of Chester County inns and taverns like the Magnolia House. The library is open Wednesday – Saturday, 9:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.; the Chester County Historical Society museum is open to the public Tuesday – Saturday, 9:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. Admission is free to members. Visit CCHS at 225 N. High Street, West Chester, PA or online at www.ChesterCoHistorical.org.
Moses Hepburn's 1868 tavern petition submitted to the Chester County Court of Quarter Sessions.
Bussel, Robert. "The Most Indispensable Man in His Community"; African-American Entrepreneurs in West Chester, Pennsylvania, 1865-1925." Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies (1998): 324-349.