**UPDATE 10/25/2017 – Clayborn Temple has been named a National Treasure by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Clayborn is one of only two locations to receive this designation in the state of Tennessee, and overall there are less than 100 locations that have earned this title. ***
Over the past seven years I have explored and photographed many abandoned and endangered historic places. I always enjoy researching the history of these places, and talking to locals and historic preservation groups, to hear the wealth of interesting stories that these buildings still hold. Some of the places I have photographed have been torn down, burned down, or just continued the inevitable descent into decay. Because of this, it is exciting to be able to share a success story, and watch first-hand as a historically significant building is rescued from the brink of ruin and given a second chance.
(To view all of my original images taken at Clayborn Temple and to read more about its history, CLICK HERE for my original post.)
The Clayborn Temple was originally the Second Presbyterian Church, built in 1891, and at time was the largest church building in America south of the Ohio River. It was purchased in 1949 by the African American Episcopal Church, and named after JM Clayborn, the AME regional Bishop.
In the 60s, Clayborn Temple established itself as a hub for the civil rights movements. During the sanitation worker’s strikes, Martin Luther King used the church as a staging area (and eventually a refuge), while planning marches on downtown Memphis. The now famous “I AM A MAN” posters that demonstrators marched with, were printed in the church’s print shop.
In the 80s, as downtown Memphis expanded and pushed the residential congregation farther out, the AME church changed locations, and closed Clayborn. The church fell into disrepair as roof leaks rotted out the domed ceilings and floors. As of 2014, some of stained glass windows were boarded up, and a large steel support beam was installed to keep the roof from collapsing. Little had been done to preserve the historic church.
In 2015, a small group of Memphians donated $50,000 to acquire Clayborn Temple from the AME church and began the process of bringing the building back to life. In the summer of 2016, the organization “Clayborn Reborn” was formed. The project, led by Frank Smith and Rob Thompson, used donated funds and services to “previtalize” the 125-year-old sanctuary of Clayborn Temple through a stabilization and clean-up project. Montgomery Martin Construction was selected as restoration partners and spent the second half of the year stabilizing the sanctuary.
In the fall of 2016 I traveled back to Memphis to exhibit my work at the annual River Arts Festival. While there, I met up with Danielle Smith (the Project Coordinator with Clayborn Reborn), as well as Frank Smith, and Rob Thompson. They offered me a behind the scenes tour of the restoration and progress that had been made since I last photographed the building in 2014. The amount of previatlization work that they had been able to complete in just a few months was staggering. As I pulled into the parking lot, I could see work crews on cherry pickers, removing the boards covering up the vintage stained glass windows. The sunken rotted floors had all been restored, the balconies which were once dangerously sagging and uneven had been shored up and made safe. The open exposed sections of domed ceiling (still exposed) had been filled in with insulation and refitted with new wood. Extensive electrical work had been done throughout, and most notably, the magnificent central chandelier had been re-wired and was gloriously lit up for the first time in decades!
Before (Taken 2014):
Part of my tour entailed climbing up a 20-foot wobbly wooden ladder, up into the topmost chamber of the old pipe organ where the smallest of the pipes were housed. Unable to fully stand up, and with shaky legs from the climb, I snapped a few shots in the near-dark, of the array of pipes. These upper octave pipes ranged in length from a few feet to a few inches long.
After a nerve-wracking climb back down the ladder, we went up to the second floor, and made our way to the inside of the domed ceiling. Being up inside the ceiling, walking on wooden planks, with only a few feet of insulation to break the two story fall back to earth, made the climb into the pipe chamber seem tame by comparison. Seeing the structure of the inside of the dome was like looking at an alien spacecraft that was under construction.
Back on solid ground, we toured through the main sanctuary of the church. With all the stained-glass windows now revealed, the late afternoon light filled the hall like I had never seen it before. By no means was the work here done, but the building was now to a point where people could once again gather and safely experience the beauty of this historic church.
After the River Arts Festival I was able to stay in town and attend the re-dedication ceremony of Clayborn Temple. Members of the community, volunteers, city officials, news outlets, and religious leaders from myriad area churches were in attendance. This was the first time in nearly thirty years, that Clayborn was able once again serve its intended purpose as a sacred place for all to gather.
Throughout the evening, priests, bishops, rabbis, pastors, and other religious and community leaders, took the stage to discuss not only the significance of what Clayborn once was, but also what it means to the city of Memphis going forward.
Rev. Dr. Deborah B. Smith, the senior pastor at Centenary United Methodist Church, gave a rousing account of her father’s connection to Clayborn Temple, and how it impacted her as a child: “During the Sanitation Worker’s Strikes, my father was a little tense, a little concerned, and a little anxious…My father came down to Clayborn Temple, to see what it is that was going on. My father must have been gone for a couple of hours. And then he came back, and he just had a different look. I could see sadness, but I could see hope. Then he called us into the kitchen area of our apartment and said ‘Listen, I just went down to Clayborn Temple, and we really couldn’t get in, but that was not important…I came away with something that was just so important.’ And my daddy pulled out this sign… that said ‘I AM A MAN’. And he said ‘I need you to hear me, all my life I have had to listen to people call me “boy”. I’m married, I’m a father, I have seven children here, I work two to three jobs every day. But when I leave my house, in order to make sure I have food on this table, I have to answer to the word “boy”… When I know I’m a man. But when I went down to Clayborn Temple, I knew that I would not have to continue to answer to boy. I’ve been called “colored”, I’ve been called “negro”, but the one that hurts me most, is “boy”’. So dad looked up at us and said ‘Don’t you ever walk around this city, or any place, and hold your head down. You hold it up! You don’t apologize for God giving you life! Hold your head high.’ So I had to smile, because as I looked around this place, I could hear everybody saying ‘I AM A MAN’”.
The evening was full of passionate speeches and accounts of both the past and future significance of what Clayborn once was and will become. It was beyond moving to hear firsthand the stories and history of Clayborn, and witness the gathering of so many diverse religious faiths coming together to celebrate the rebirth of this sacred building.
I was both surprised and honored to be personally mentioned by Rob Thompson, when he was thanking the numerous people involved in bringing Clayborn Temple back to life. Hearing him say that my photos and stories posted on my blog, played a vital role in creating, and driving the vision they had for Clayborn, was a tremendous honor.
At the end of the event, I met a very special person (for the second time). Back in 2014 while I was photographing Clayborn, I met a man by the name of Mr. Bobby. He had come into the church while I was shooting to find out who I was, and why I was there. He told me that he was the unofficial groundskeeper for the church. He lived in the neighborhood and could not stand to see the church falling into disrepair and the weeds growing up. He said it was such a shame to know the history of Clayborn and to see it totally neglected. He took it upon himself to mow, and weed, and keep the grounds in order, since no one else was. It was such a touching story at the time, and I had always regretted not taking a portrait of Mr. Bobby when I had the chance. As it turns out, Mr. Bobby was volunteering at the Clayborn Reborn event, helping park cars and direct traffic. I re-introduced myself to him and managed to get a quick portrait of him in front of the open doors to the church.
Clayborn Reborn has been hosting numerous educational and artistic events in anticipation of the City’s commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Sanitation Worker’s Strike, and Dr. King’s assassination. They intend to break ground on full restoration of Clayborn Temple in April of 2018, following the commemoration. To follow the ongoing progress at Clayborn, please Like and Follow them on, Facebook, and visit their website for more information on ways to volunteer, donate, and help with the project.
Awesome story and photos brother!!