African American friends-turned-family buy antebellum Guest House

Published 3:40 pm Friday, May 13, 2022

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NATCHEZ — God works in mysterious ways.

That’s certainly the case in the friends-turned-family relationship of Mike and Tiffany Clinton of Los Angeles and Joseph C. Smith of Natchez.

On March 29, the three became business partners and owners of The Guest House in Natchez.

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“I remember riding past here as a kid and imagining what life was like for those who had lived here,” Smith said. “The Eola and The Guest House are kind of like staples here in Natchez. I don’t know anyone who didn’t at least drive by here and be mesmerized by The Guest House. This is like a full circle moment, being able to arrive at a place where we could acquire the mansion and be able to interpret the history of the mansion in a unique way because I don’t think there has been an antebellum mansion of this size that has been owned by African Americans.”

It also provides a unique opportunity, Smith said, to interpret the history of the house from the perspective of the men and women who built, managed and maintained it.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for Natchez and America, right? I think more people who are coming to Natchez have this desire to hear the full history. In fact, the folks who are staying here at The Guest House want to know, what about the Black people? The enslaved people who built it? We are excited to be able to add the broad history of Natchez and The Guest House to our story.

But such is not the primary aim of the Clintons and Smith. Their primary objective for The Guest House, along with operating a successful business, is to inspire the next generation of every ethnicity or race about the possibilities of what they can become.

God’s plan all along

Joseph Smith was an assistant pastor at one of the fastest growing churches in Washington, D.C., in 2011 when Mike and Tiffany Clinton were planning their destination wedding in Cabo, Mexico.

“The pastor of the church happened to be Mike’s frat brother, who overcommitted himself for that wedding with a big speaking engagement and I was pinch hitting for him,” Smith said.

“But now we know why God did this, right,” Mrs. Clinton said. “When we got married, there were a lot of people there, but it was really just the three of us. We were cracking jokes and smiling and it was honestly…God meant for him to marry us and for this. We now know why we are here.”

The three and their families are now fast friends, vacationing and spending holidays together since that fateful meeting in Mexico.

The ‘other’ Clintons

Mike Clinton is from Baltimore originally. Mrs. Clinton is “as LA as it comes.”

“My wife is from Los Angeles and recruited me to move out there. Since she’s an attorney, we didn’t want her to take a different bar and LA is an easy sell in terms of the weather. Once I left Baltimore at 18, I never moved back,” he said

Clinton earned his undergraduate degree from Duke and graduated from the business school at Vanderbilt.

“I started off as a real estate investment banker working for a boutique firm out of Philadelphia,” he said. “And what actually prompted us to move was her brother was in a car accident and we left Philadelphia in this frantic situation. Two or three months later — we were not married at the time — we were still in Los Angeles supporting her family and I realized I could make it work remotely and we just stayed and we began our lives together.”

In 2017, Clinton switched from finance to business development.

“I got involved in my first development in 2017 and we now own 630 apartment units around the country,” Clinton said. The couple also runs an event property in Palm Springs.

“That was kind of our first foray into hospitality. Our experience with that made it an easy transition into something like this, not that we would have done this without Joseph. You really need a local connection to make this work,” he said.

Mrs. Clinton, born and raised in L.A., completed her undergraduate degree at UCLA and left Los Angeles to go to law school in Michigan.

“After law school, I ended up back in Los Angeles. I’ve been practicing law for 14 years,” she said. “I’m in corporate transactional law. I do everything from the due diligence prior to acquisition to the acquisition, and if it’s a merger, I handle the full establishment of operation and running the business from top to bottom, and the eventual sale if that happens.”

The perfect opportunity

Smith pitched the idea of coming to Natchez to the Clintons.

“I told him we needed something to build around, something to anchor us here, and this became the perfect asset. It’s large enough and makes a big splash, but it is still boutique — 16 rooms and a small restaurant — an operation we can get our arms around. Not too many employees that we are going to stress Joseph out too much.

“Tiffany actually runs organizations much, much larger than this. So, I had a lot of confidence in our team. Joseph has in his background running multi-million dollar P&Ls, so we are set,” Clinton said.

“We were actually working on something else at the time and happened to see the listing and it was conspicuous on the internet. It didn’t say it was The Guest House. It was just a posting,” Smith said. “Mike is like a venture capitalist. He’s always taking chances on cool things. We started poking around to figure out what we could find around Natchez and he saw this listing for a bed and breakfast that had a hotel and restaurant but there was no name on it.”

They responded to the listing, seeking more information, but didn’t hear back.

“We sent an email and it was like the email went into a black hole for like two months. And then, finally, Sean reaches back out to us. Mike calls me and tells me it’s The Guest House and asks me if I’ve ever heard of it. ‘Dude, have I ever heard of it? It’s The Guest House. We need to buy this like now!’ I told him,” Smith said.

Imagining the possibilities

During a road trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles a few years after they were married, the Clintons came upon Hearst Castle and the two decided to stop and see it.

“It was built by the newspaper billionaire Hearst and is a huge castle. He used his fortune to buy up most of the coast. Harry Potter was filmed there,” Mrs. Clinton said. “We watched an Imax movie there of the Hearst empire and I remember Mike saying he wished he had the opportunity to see something like the Hearst Castle when he was little because his idea of what he could dream of making of his life would have been far more expansive. It would have taken the ceiling off of every dream he had. He said, ‘When I have a kid, I want them to see Hearst Castle,’ ” she said.

The Clintons are parents of two children — Styles, 5, and Brilliant, 2. On Monday of last week, Styles was sitting quietly at his device doing his schoolwork while Brilliant was napping in her mother’s arms.

“Part of what we are doing is aimed at motivating children. It’s because children cannot become what they don’t see, and it all they see are housekeeping positions or blue-collar positions, that’s the direction they will go,” Clinton said.

“We have footage of the kids playing in the hallways. I thought, ‘Can you imagine? The African American kids running around here are the heirs.’ It was so beautiful, incredible. All they will know at 5 and 2 is Natchez and The Guest House and it will become who they are,” he said. “I am thrilled to add this to their legacy and the legacy of the city. I’m excited to see where it will go.”

The effect their purchase of this antebellum mansion has had on older Black Natchezians has been impactful, as well.

“I have been really surprised about the effect our buying The Guest House has had on older people here in Natchez. The joy and the tears and kind of motivation and inspiration they have gotten from it, just from the feedback they are giving us, has completely blown us away. Some of our staff members were in tears simply from the notion that African Americans own something this majestic as this. That’s the part I went back gushing to my wife about,” Clinton said. “That was something that brought tears to us, the impact it had on people.”

Smith formed the organization, which hopes to help people understand the full story of Natchez.

“This is not about Black Natchez or white Natchez. This is everybody versus racism. This is everybody versus inequality. Everybody versus inequity,” Smith said. “We want to inspire the next generation of Natchezians of every ethnicity and every race.

“And we do think it is important for people who have been at the bottom of the barrel to see people who were once where they were, to be able to rise and do things like this to impact the community and the state.”

It is something important to other Natchezians as well.

After the acquisition was completed, Mimi Miller of the Historic Natchez Foundation wrote to Smith, “This acquisition of The Guest House is a really big deal for us. We have dreamed for almost 50 years of seeing Black ownership in downtown historic properties and business and historic mansions. I see this as a tremendous step forward for the Black community toward recognizing that the city’s historic buildings also belong to them.”

Natchez’s living room

Built in the 1840s, the mansion has served as a private home until around 1900 when the Natchez Elks Lodge, who extensively renovated and added a second floor to the home, purchased it. It also served as Pilgrimage headquarters at one point. Later, it became part of The Eola Hotel before being purchased by Sean and Rachel Casey in December 2017, who sold it to the Clintons and Smith.

“We are both surprised by the grandeur of this house,” Mrs. Clinton said. “We are both from the city, so to be in such a small town and the warmth of Natchez and the warmth of Natchez people is wonderful. It’s really a quaint, cute town. I’m very surprised at how special Natchez is. (My husband) was down here a month ago and he came home and kept telling me, ‘I can’t wait for you to go. I can’t wait for you to go. The children love it.’ ”

“We technically bought it before I had been here,” Clinton said. “That’s how much I trusted Joseph.”

Smith said at the 40-day mark of ownership, the operation at The Guest House is moving along at full steam. It is completely booked on weekends for the foreseeable future. He plans to enhance the restaurant’s menu, which features Mediterranean cuisine and Creole cuisine, as well as a full Southern breakfast each morning.

“We continue to serve chicken shawarma, which has been a favorite, and we have improved the shrimp and grits.

The new owners’ message to Natchezians is simple and inviting.

“We want to be the living room of Natchez. The Guest House is your house. Come have a Mint Julep, drink a glass of wine and watch the sunset from our upstairs terrace. Have a chat with friends. People can come and in the courtyard, too. It’s beautiful at night. And it’s a place for families to come. Thanks to Mrs. Clinton, we have a children’s menu, and a lunch menu with lunch pricing. I think people will be very pleased when they come.”

The Guest House is opening back up the small bar located just off the first floor terrace, where those who want to stop by and have a drink can quickly pop in and do so.

“We are rooting for everyone in Natchez. Our success is the city’s success,” Clinton said. “We are bringing people from the larger cities around the country here to Natchez and if they want to see the city grow and succeed and prosper and be more diverse and healthy and joyful, we would love for them to be supportive by coming personally or just giving support on social media or sending good vibes and thoughts and intentions. We will take all of that.

“We are committed to the city, committed to the people. We are here to be a catalyst. I will bring my family and friends and kids here and want to show the locals love and we are hoping that will be mutual,” Clinton said.

“I’m excited. I hope people will give us a chance and know we are not here taking anything. We just want to enhance what’s here and provide good information, good vibes and lots of smiles,” Mrs. Clinton said. “I can’t wait to see Christmas at The Guest House. I love Christmas!”