The Clayborn Temple was built in 1891 as the Second Presbyterian Church. Architects Long and Kees designed the 25,000 square foot Gothic Revival church. Upon completion, the building was the largest church in America, south of the Ohio River and cost $100,000. The ornate stained glass windows became the “talk of the town.” The first service at Second Presbyterian was held on Sunday, October 16, 1892.
The African Methodist Episcopal Church purchased the property from the Second Presbyterian Church in 1949 for $90,000. The church was then renamed the Clayborn Temple after John Henry Clayborn, chairman of the AME church’s 13th district.
Throughout the 1960s, the Clayborn Temple was a hub for the civil rights movement. On February 12, 1968, Memphis Sanitation Workers went on strike after two African American sanitation workers died due to work-related injuries followed by years of discrimination and dangerous working conditions. The church was the distribution site for sanitation workers’ “I Am a Man” protest signs which were made in the church’s print shop.
Martin Luther King, Jr. used it as a home base for planning marches as well as the starting point for nightly non-violent marches to City Hall. However, one march turned unexpectedly violent as local youths joined the march and began smashing windows on Beale Street. Police used teargas and rubber bullets to push the march back towards the church. One 16-year-old boy was shot and killed by Memphis Police. The church suffered heavy damage as protesters retreated inside from law enforcement.
Due to ongoing protest, on April 3, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech was moved from the Clayborn Temple to the Mason Temple. At the end of his speech, King discussed the possibility of an untimely death. The following day Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.
The sanitation workers’ strike ended on April 16, 1968, with a settlement that included wage increases and union recognition. However additional strikes had to be threatened before the City of Memphis would honor its agreement.
With the growth of downtown Memphis, residents moved farther out and the congregation slowly dwindled. By the mid-1970s, the church was in a state of disrepair due to neglect by the church congregation and abuse from vandals. Clayborn Temple was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.
The Clayborn Temple was rededicated in 1983 after a $500,000 renovation. However, by the late 1980s, the church congregation could not support the building and decided to close its doors. The church remained abandoned for the next 30 years. The AME Church planned to restore it for many years but decided to list it for sale in 2011 for $1 million.
The AME Church was targeting a foundation or non-profit organization for a buyer. They believed it was cost $4 million to renovate the building on top of the $1 million price. The original stained glass windows, organ, and chandelier remain today.
After four years on the market, the Clayborn Temple sold in 2015 to a nonprofit group, Neighborhood Preservation Inc., for $65,000.
Neighborhood Preservation Inc. plans to have the church vibrant again by April 2018 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. NPI hopes their involvement will keep the property from falling into further disrepair while seeking the funds needed for the renovation.