For Monique Greenwood, the decision to be an entrepreneur came down to legacy building.
“I could leave my daughter a portfolio of real estate and a business to run, but I couldn’t leave her a job at Essence,” said Greenwood, who was then editor-in-chief of that popular magazine.
She chose the bed and breakfast business because she loved staying at inns and thought she had the perfect personality for it.
“You have to have a heart of service and genuinely like people,” said Greenwood.
These days she might be called a queen of B&Bs, especially among African-American inn owners. She’s been in this business since 1996 and owns five luxury properties with her husband, Glenn Pogue, operating as Akwaaba Bed & Breakfast Inns.
“While numerous inns have multiple buildings, to have five separate entities is not common,” said Kris Ullmer, executive director of the Professional Association of Innkeepers International. There are just “a small percentage of innkeepers with that level of longevity,” said Ullmer about Greenwood’s 21 years in the business.
Greenwood has built a “unique model,” said fellow inn owner Daniel Edwards of Morehead Manor in Durham, North Carolina. “She has a brand she promotes. You will have a different experience at each of her properties.”
Greenwood’s inns offer upscale accommodations in historic properties “with old-fashioned hospitality and modern-day conveniences,” she said. Guests are called by their names and there are amenities such as fresh-squeezed lemonade served on the front porch.
Edwards said when he and his wife opened their business in 1997, many white inns depended on a travel guide to attract lodgers.
“They put a picture of the property and a bio of the innkeepers,” Edwards said. “But as African-Americans, we couldn’t do that, or we would be shooting ourselves in the foot.”
In short, white travelers were unlikely to check into black-owned B&Bs.
In one sense, blacks had a network of B&Bs during segregation. Unable to stay at white-owned hotels, black travelers used The Negro Motorist Green Book, published from 1936 to 1966, to find black owned-and-operated lodging.
Sandra Butler-Truesdale, once a cosmetologist for James Brown’s and Ray Charles’s bands, remembers how unforgiving the road was for black musicians.
“Entertainers and people who traveled a lot stayed with relatives and friends, and there were certain guest houses,” said Butler-Truesdale. “Some musicians had buses and they did one-night stands and slept on their buses, heading to other engagements. Sometimes buses stopped at gas stations where people could change and wash themselves.”
When Greenwood opened her first inn in Brooklyn, guests were generally family, friends and neighbors. About 95 percent of their guests were black then, versus 40 percent today.
“We still have these clients in Brooklyn, but many more guests are coming from all over the world simply for vacation,” said Greenwood.
Early on, she and her family occupied the top floor of the Brooklyn establishment.
“The business made enough money for us to live in a beautiful mansion, rent- and expense-free, so we began building up a nest egg from our day-job income to be able to buy more property.”
Today, Greenwood has 13 employees. “In 2015, Akwaaba’s sales surpassed the million-dollar mark, with much of the profit being reinvested back into the company,” she said.
She and her husband own other commercial properties, which they have patiently used as collateral to invest in buying and renovating inns.
“What has been most important is maintaining stellar personal credit, and doing that often requires being a pro at delayed gratification,” said Greenwood.
Her ownership of The Mansion at Noble Lane symbolizes how much America has changed. The 25,000 square-foot, 14-room Gilded Age inn in Bethany, Pennsylvania was the estate of the founders of the F.W. Woolworth Company.
Mary Grate Pyos of Burke, Virginia, who had stayed at Akwaaba in Washington, D.C., attended the opening of The Mansion.
“What’s so exciting about that inn is — as an African-American, who not so long ago was unable to sit at the Woolworth counter and get a cup of water — I now get to witness a black woman owning the Woolworth estate,” said Pyos. “I wanted to cheer her on.”
Greenwood, an astute businesswoman with a love for Afro-centrism, said she chose the name Akwaaba because it means “welcome” in the Ghanaian language of Twi, “represents a connection to the Motherland” and because it starts with A — “generally making us first on most lists.”