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Motel Sepia

When Cecil Reed, a black Cedar Rapids, Iowa, businessman, launched the real Motel Sepia in the mid-1950s, he had a dual purpose: satisfy an entrepreneurial itch and advance a mission to bring black and white people closer together. His family, on a trip west, experienced the reality of the time. Between Chicago and the west coast there were only a half dozen places that would accept Negro families. The experience resulted in the startup of Motel Sepia.

In this fictionalized version of the story, his guest list doesn’t always fit his vision, or, I should say, that of Reed’s character, Roy Sanders. On a hot August day, white and black travelers arrive at the motel, and with some Sanders’ nudging gather and uneasily mingle on the motel lawn. One couple keeps a low profile. Nobody knows that their trip involves a different mission, one directed by the Chicago mob.

The resulting murder creates anxiety for all, but also serves as a cohesive element. Whites and blacks face a common fear. Local robberies, the independent work of a local “kissing bandit,” serve to send cops in the wrong direction. Other events cause Sanders to violate his own philosophy about quick judgment, and the real killers escape.

Cecil Reed’s efforts to improve racial harmony were unusual for the 1950s. It would seem his goals still have a way to go.