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Clayborn Temple is Memphis' First 'National Treasure'


A once-abandoned church is now the first-ever Memphis building to be designated a "National Treasure" by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. 

Clayborn Temple, at 280 Hernando St. next to the FedExForum, played a prominent role in the 1968 Sanitation Workers' Strike. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke in the sanctuary on several occasions. Recently, the building has been re-activated as a community event space. 

David Brown, executive vice president and chief preservation officer of the National Trust, said that while the Romanesque Revival architecture is certainly worth saving, what brought the country's largest nonprofit preservation group to Memphis was Clayborn Temple's history.

"What's really important is the backstory of the civil rights struggle here," Brown says. "How this place helped transform the discussion about civil rights across the country is just as important as the building itself."

Established in 1893 as Second Presbyterian Church, the building was purchased in 1949 by the African Methodist Episcopal Church and renamed Clayborn Temple. Its proximity to City Hall made it a prominent hub of political activity during the civil rights movement.

The famous "I Am a Man" posters were printed in Clayborn Temple's basement before being distributed to striking sanitation workers in 1968. 

The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.

Abandoned in 1999, the church was in derelict condition when restoration began in 2015 in the care of nonprofit groups Clayborn Reborn and NPI Clayborn Temple LLC. 

Brown says support from the Washington D.C.-based organization could include up to $250,000 from the National Fund for Sacred Spaces, as well as multi-year guidance from the National Trust's staff of architects and planners. 

The "National Treasures" distinction is the National Trust's signature program, identifying places that are threatened but have important stories to tell. Clayborn Temple is now one of 80 buildings in a rotating portfolio of spaces receiving assistance from the group. 

Brown says the timing is important as well. Memphis is preparing for the 50th Anniversary of the assassination of Dr. King next April. A new monument, billed as the "I Am a Man Plaza" is will built next to Clayborn Temple at a cost of $1.5 million. 

Brown points to the nation's current conversations about race -- "from boardrooms to NFL football fields" -- as reason to focus more attention to Clayborn Temple's story.

"What we think that Clayborn Temple can do as it goes forward," Brown says, "is be a place where we can have these conversations about racial reconciliation, [about] the role of these places in helping us understand how we relate to each other as people, and why are we still having these conversations in America today?"

Reporting from the gates of Graceland to the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, Christopher has covered Memphis news, arts, culture and politics for more than 20 years in print and on the radio. He is currently WKNO's News Director and Senior Producer at the University of Memphis' Institute for Public Service Reporting. Join his conversations about the Memphis arts scene on the WKNO Culture Desk Facebook page.