"Clayborn Temple: A sacred place in the heart of Memphis"

A stately Romanesque Revival church just south of Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee, Clayborn Temple began life with a white congregation in 1892 as Second Presbyterian. In 1949, the church was sold to an African-American congregation, who changed the property’s name to Clayborn Temple in honor of a local African Methodist Episcopal (AME) bishop.

During the Sanitation Workers’ Strike of 1968, civil rights and labor activists organized together inside Clayborn Temple. The “I AM A MAN” signs created by the congregation’s pastor with his own printing press have since become a universal symbol for human rights and human dignity. Today, the “I AM A MAN” signs remain relevant everywhere, from protests close to home in Ferguson to halfway around the world in Egypt.

Clayborn Temple closed in 1999 and fell into disrepair, but it has since reopened. The building hosts special events like weddings and live performances, is once again home to a congregation, and is also a meeting space for local and national organizations. Most importantly, the community members and preservation organizations who have kept Clayborn Temple alive are dedicated to preserving its legacy as the site where activists first organized around the idea that poverty and race were inextricably bound. (c/o :2018 National Trust for Historic Preservation).

Clayborn Temple reborn currently serves as a space for restoration, artistic production, social innovation, economic justice, and community transformation. The space works to restore Clayborn Temple’s historic space in a way that both honors it’s architectural past and enables its programmatic future. Clayborn Temple works to re-engage the social mission that bears witness to the reality of God’s love and that honors the dignity of their neighbors. And lastly, Clayborn Temple works to renew Clayborn to the surrounding community by partnering with local neighbors to see South City become a thriving community for all of its residents.

 
 
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Photo C/O Historic American Buildings Survey/Library of Congress

Beginnings - Second Presbyterian Church 

 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.

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Photo C/O Steve Jones

New Owners -African Methodist Episcopal Church

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.

 Photo C/O Getty Images

Photo C/O Getty Images

Action- Civil Rights Movement and Political Activism

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.

 Photo C/O Steve Jones

Photo C/O Steve Jones

Inactive Period

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.