No matter what part of the city you are from, this building has played a special role in our individual and collective histories. After decades of non-use, Clayborn Temple is now on track for restoration. We intend to honor every aspect of the special history of this building as we look to cement its place in the future of our city.
In 1887 the congregation of Second Presbyterian Church in Memphis, Tennessee purchased a lot on the corner of Hernando and Pontotoc Street for $14,000.00. The Church building constructed on that land for $100,000.00 has served generations of Memphians as one of the most important spiritual, social, and architectural locations in our City. Under the leadership of Rev. Neander Woods the cornerstone was laid on February 2nd, 1891 and when the dedication service was held on January 1st, 1893, Memphis became home to the largest church building in America south of the Ohio River. This cornerstone still stands today, and while the building is in disrepair from years of non-use, now is the time to restore Clayborn Temple and cement its place in the future of Memphis.
After over fifty years worshipping at the Hernando St. location, Second Presbyterian Church moved to a new campus and the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) purchased the property in 1949 for $100,000.00. The AME Church purchase included all of the stained glass windows and maintained the original architecture. A new era began for the structure beginning first with a new name: Clayborn Temple. Named after AME Bishop Jim Clayborn, the building took on the role of a meeting and organizational hub for the entire region as the Civil Rights Movement spread throughout the South.
In the 1960’s, Clayborn Temple continued to be a home of worship for the large AME congregation. Under the leadership of Rev. Benjamin Booker, Clayborn Temple served as a safe haven for gatherings to plan, strategize, and implement efforts for racial equality within Memphis. During Dr. Martin Luther King’s leadership of the Civil Rights Movement he visited Clayborn Temple on multiple occasions. The Sanitation Workers’ Strike in 1968 served as the Church’s most famous and successful contribution to the legacy of Dr. King and the Civil Rights movement as a whole. It was at Clayborn that the “I Am a Man” Signs were distributed. Clayborn’s central location within the city, and active presence within the community, made the building a natural starting point for the Sanitation Workers to assemble before their solidarity march. As a result, Clayborn has long been considered Memphis’ third most important Civil Rights location. The iconic “I Am a Man” images have been seen by millions of people who know Clayborn as a thriving location within the heart of Memphis.
In 1979, Clayborn Temple was added to the National Register of Historic Places. The AME congregation continued to worship in Clayborn until the doors were closed due to the congregants, similar to Second Presbyterian before it, moving away from downtown. For over 25 years this formative institution in Memphis has sat vacant. One of our Nation’s most significant Church buildings, vibrant gathering places, and a landmark in the Civil Rights movement still stands here in Memphis awaiting restoration. It would be a great loss if this legacy ended because of an inability to restore the building in time. After years of non-use, Clayborn Temple is on track for restoration. This is likely Memphis’ last chance to see Clayborn Temple not only preserved but utilized as a worshipping, gathering, working place and symbol for the new Memphis that is growing within the city, particularly downtown.