NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - The Marsalis family is known for making music, but the family's original patriarch made history in the Civil Rights Movement. The late Ellis Marsalis Sr. gave many African-American leaders a safe place to lay their heads. The Marsalis Mansion Motel was a fixture in the black community. Now there's a monument on River Road where it once stood.
"He worked very hard and I'm sorry he wasn't here to see that," said his son, musician Ellis Marsalis Jr.
"I remember this was a landmark for blacks when we could not stay at downtown hotels," said former New Orleans first lady Sybil Morial.
The site is now gravel and grass.
Yvette Marsalis says the motel started as a barn. She called the area at River Road and Shrewsbury "very country" at the time. She helped her parents run the motel from young age.
"During the time of segregation when it was so many people coming to town they didn't have any where to hold meetings, so a friend of his gave him an idea to have upstairs over the barn to hold meetings," she said.
The meeting space evolved into a haven for traveling African Americans. Marsalis decided to add a few rooms to see what would happen. It branched into two hotel wings on each side of the barn. The Marsalis Mansion grew to about 40 rooms and housed the who's who in music and civil rights.
"Dr. King did stay here. He came with one of the local attorneys that were here," Ellis Marsalis Jr. said.
Yvette says she saw Thurgood Marshall, too. Musicians like Ray Charles and Dinah Washington were guests.
Jefferson Parish President John Young listed other notables.
"Ike and Tina Turner, Nat King Cole all came here and stayed at his hotel and he continued to promote unity through the parish and metropolitan area," Young said.
Marsalis was the fist African American to own a gas station in Jefferson Parish and was a mover and shaker in the Republican party.
"I remember Mr. Marsalis because he was involved in voter registration in Jefferson Parish when my husband and I were involved in Orleans Parish, so we all collaborated together," said Sybil Morial.
The hotel closed in 1986, and family friend Eustis Guillemet brought the idea for the monument to Parish President John Young.
"It's extremely significant in the history of the parish," said Charmaine Rini of the Jefferson Historical Society.