1926 marked the beginning of 2 very interesting and progressive lives. The 1st a 14-story brick structure in downtown Greensboro’s East Market and Davie Streets and the 2nd, a baby boy in Stamford, Connecticut born to Greek parents who moved to the U.S. from modern day Turkey. Although the 1st broke ground in 1926 in Greensboro, that latter wouldn’t arrive to his new hometown until 1939 with his parents.
Agapios Basilios Agapion, a restaurant owner, and wife, Helen Theodore Agapion, a Greek school teacher, brought their oldest son Bill, 13, daughter Katherine, 12, and youngest Stephen, 7 to settle in a nice southern town. It was a breath of fresh air from post-depression, blue collar Allentown, Pennsylvania.
Coincidentally, the textile industry coupled with the railroad and transportation industries were what established Greensboro as a city in 1808. Tobacco was of key importance, but cotton, as true in the rest of the south, was considered “King”, hence the building name. It was the arrival of Benjamin and Caesar Cone who established Greensboro as a textile leader.
As the city grew, so did its resident, Bill Agapion. Educational centers grew and drew tons of famous people to speak, lecture, visit, promote, rally, campaign, work, and eventually even protest. The King Cotton Hotel with decades of management by Haywood Duke, housed thousands of prominent travelers and visitors alike. With its 250 bedrooms, 250 baths, restaurants, themed convention rooms, luxurious ballroom with crystal chandeliers, balconies, columns, and pricey antiques, it was a jewel, and had more than enough space to house almost anyone who came along from 1926 to 1971. By 1952, Agapion had already graduated Greensboro City High School, attended The Citadel in Charleston, S.C., served in the US army during World War II as a highly decorated Lieutenant and received an astounding three purple hearts for injuries sustained in battle in Japan and The Philippines. He had graduated from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, received a bachelor’s degree in Political Science, and graduated UNC-Chapel Hill School of Law.
That year Bill Agapion and lifelong friend and fellow Greensboro resident, Kenneth Lee made history by being sworn into the N.C. State Bar Association together. The influential Lee, by becoming the 1st African-American to be sworn into the NC Bar and Bill Agapion by being the first Greek-American to be sworn into the NC Bar. Their friendship would prove particularly important in subsequent years. Both young lawyers hung out their shingles and began individual law practices. Kenneth Lee had established American Federal Bank in Greensboro, where he served as president for a number of years. He carved out his niche by lending to investors in the black community. The need was great because of unfair practices, like red-lining, which made it difficult for African-Americans to secure financing for real estate and business.
Bill Agapion by this time had a real estate portfolio that included hundreds of units. Until 1966 most were relatively small apartment properties and single family rental homes. That year the handsome young lawyer took a fancy to the stately King Cotton Hotel. The elegant edifice had hosted athletes, film stars, musicians, writers, scientists, and Nobel Prize winners. Legends like silver screen icon, Charlton Heston (1941), incredible 1st Lady Eleanor Roosevelt (1942), and recording sensation Pat Boone (1956), knew it well. The Three Stooges laid their hats there, as well as fellow royal, Elvis Presley and his TCB band. Agapion completes, “Oh, yeah, everybody how was anybody, that came to Greensboro, stayed there.”
By 1966, the grand old place was mostly unoccupied, Agapion recalls, “Nobody wanted to buy it, it had been for sale for a while and I guess most people were afraid to take such a big risk.” Then again, Agapion has never been like most people. A true visionary, he explains, “I always admired it, and it was beautiful.” So the still single investor decided to take the bold chance. That year, he moved his law practice, Agapion & Agapion, along with partner and brother, Steve, from 201 North Cedar Street and Friendly, a few blocks east to the famous hotel.
Still regal, the structure was only being occupied on four floors as an unofficial dormitory for area college students, who were incidentally all white. This gave its new owner, Agapion, a great idea!
He had heard of the nearby North Carolina A&T State University housing shortage and decided to invite the students to come live at The King Cotton. Thus, creating the first racially integrated housing facility of its kind in North Carolina. 1969 resident of the 9th floor, and then A&T student, William Duke proclaimed of its status “… definitely the first racially integrated hosing complex in the state-probably in the entire southeast.” The same year, a young white man by the name of Bob Henderson moved to Greensboro to accept his position at Wrangler and recalls living on the 8th floor. “It was a bargain at only ten dollars a week.” It still had a full service barber shop and a restaurant, Faucette’s Grill. The black entrepreneurs also owned and operated Greensboro hot spot, The El Rocco Café and Night Club.
Well, in the slow paced, conservative, and profoundly traditional southeast, you can imagine that the all-white establishment was not quick to accept Agapion’s great idea as such. They made it abundantly clear that they were not at all pleased and laws protecting equal housing had not yet even been enacted. So, they focused all their anger, prejudice and power toward breaking Agapion. Lots of civil rights protests were going on outside the hotel doors, more than a decade before. In 1958, the prolific Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Junior came to Greensboro to speak and sparked civil rights awareness rallies. Stories of the pre-Agapion, racially segregated, King Cotton Hotel include an account by David Richmond, famed Woolworth’s sit-Inner, as published in Walt Harrington’s Crossings A White Man’s Journey Into Black America, retelling how young white residents and guests would hang out of the windows of the skyscraper, laughing and taunting peaceful demonstrators who only wanted equal service in restaurants. He revealed how they were filling balloons up with water and dropping them on the heads of the black marchers.
Eager to preserve their social power and dominance, city leaders pulled no punches when it came to trying to suppress Agapion’s practice of renting to anyone who needed a place, regardless of race or ethnicity. When asked if he considered what the repercussions would be he shakes his head and says, “I had this big building—2/3 empty, and they needed a place for the students.” During a 2008 meeting with the International Civil Rights museum organizers, Hurley Derrickson, and North Carolina State legislative member, Earl Jones, Jones called Agapion, “a hero.”
Agapion continues his story, “The leaders of Greensboro didn’t like it a bit! They had this ‘how dare he’ attitude.” The first of many similar stunts, the city “started sending everybody and their brother out to inspect us” trying to break the visionary. He says, “The building inspector, the health inspector, the elevator inspector, and finally, the fire inspector. Captain Eddie Smith, who was a friend of the persistent hotel owner, and had a band, came through, following orders. Only a few minor violations that were quickly corrected were found. He took his friend aside and confided, “Bill, I’m gonna tell you..they’re out to get you.”
Still a hotbed of civil rights activity, the great Dr. King returns to Greensboro in 1966 for another famous speaking engagement. Lots of other civil rights speakers followed. This really motivated the effort, and students eager for equality were positively charged! “Following one speech, there were demonstrations”, says Agapion, “what really made them (the then ‘powers that be’) mad was that one guy-he didn’t even live at the King Cotton-tried to come into the hotel carrying a big case. I asked him where he was going and what was that he had there. He acted nervous and kinda suspicious-he went away. Later, probably after I left that night” he adds, “He must’ve snuck back in and went upstairs to the 14th floor. He had a rifle – he fired off some shots!” The young black man was later caught up with by the police. “He took a shot at a white police officer-and his squad car, I think.” Agapion tells with an uneasy chuckle, silently reflecting his apparent proficiency as a marksman. While remembering his feeling of obvious relief, the WWII veteran said, “It’s a good thing he was a bad shot and he missed him! That was when they really started giving me a hard time!”
In 1968, Agapion married local Greek Orthodox priest’s daughter, Sophia Sitaras, who eventually became a hotel employee, “Other than what so many people remember about the King Cotton,” Agapion’s wife remembers, “the luncheonette being delicious . . . a beautiful place with marble floors, 4 baby grand pianos, and exquisite Queen Ann furniture.”
When it became evident that bombarding this attorney’s prize investment with a dizzying array of constant inspections was going to prove unfruitful, “They contacted my mortgage company to see if my payments were coming in on time. The bank always got their payments right on time. When that didn’t work, they sent the Internal Revenue to audit me. I had nothing to hide, so that didn’t work either.” The time had come to pay property taxes. “It was around 1969 and I didn’t need the deduction for the year.” Common practice in the industry is to pay property taxes before December 31st to claim them on the year’s income or wait until January and carry the expense into the following year. Agapion explains, “I waited to pay my real property taxes on the hotel so
I could use the expense in the next tax year. I couldn’t believe that they had continued to monitor my mortgage and immediately informed the bank that I hadn’t yet paid the taxes! The bank initiated foreclosure.” Still shocked, Agapion, the reserved gentleman, thought that it wasn’t a big deal. He had good credit, if he just paid the taxes everything would be fine. It was not so. The bank, by now had been convinced by their city of Greensboro informant, that the noble attorney was no longer a good risk. They refused to reinstate the loan on the hotel. “I tried to just refinance it to pay off Liberty Life Insurance’s note, but they had gone a step further.” They had contacted all the big lenders with whom Mr. Agapion had good current business relationships with strong payment histories, and told them not to lend to him. It should be noted that at the time, the Greensboro mayor and several city officials had professional affiliations with lending institutions. “I didn’t know what to do!”
To the rescue came a powerful banker and trustworthy confidant. “I called my old friend Kenneth Lee, at the first black-owned bank in Greensboro, American Federal.” He recalls with a thankful, but shy smile and sigh, “He bailed me out.”
After so many time consuming efforts, vindictive antagonists weren’t about to retreat. “They weren’t going to quit.” In 1971 after a prominent and historic presence in the memory of the struggle for civil justice, the city of Greensboro used its ace in the hole. It employed the irrefutable power of eminent domain and declared the King Cotton Hotel site a “redevelopment area.” What took 45 noteworthy years to permanently establish itself in Greensboro’s history and civil rights history, took about 15 seconds and 325 pounds of explosives to conquer. The great building became an indelible part of American history by capturing national news as the city’s first building ever to be imploded.
37 years later in 2008, its proud but soft-spoken owner says, “They managed to shut Woolworth’s down, they forced courageous clothing store owner and sit-in financier, Ralph Jones to finally shut down.” Agapion who still profoundly loves Greensboro says, “They couldn’t do that to me. They gave me a hard time-but I wasn’t going anywhere.”
Bill Agapion has been included in Who’s Who in America in numerous volumes and is the proud recipient of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference Awards. He received a commendation from the NC Bar Association honoring him for 50 years of exemplary service prior to his retirement from practicing law in 2002. Agapion still owns and operates ARCO Realty Company in his sister Katherine’s former building at 625 South Elm Street, Greensboro. He works tirelessly with his daughter, Broker, Irene Agapion-Palamaris, who has been bestowed 2 Housing Coalition awards in 2007 and 2008 for the company’s work in restoring and improving residential properties. Former King Cotton employee, Martha Fuquay Lee currently serves as an administrative manager at ARCO. Eldest son, Basil Agapion is also employed with his father.
Eternally humble and unpretentious, he doesn’t respond when called a revolutionary. Consider that the Federal government only began protecting fair housing in 1968-a full 2 years later than Agapion’s King Cotton Practice and schools were not racially integrated in North Carolina until the 1970’s.