Clayborn Temple on the road to revival

On Oct. 25, roughly 200 Memphians filed into the worn sanctuary of Clayborn Temple. They were there to witness the blessing of the recently reopened Civil Rights site. They were also there to share their ideas for the historic church's next purpose.

Rev. Keith Norman of First Baptist Church, surveying the diverse crowd bathed in multi-colored light from the stained-glass windows still intact, looked up to the dome of the sanctuary and uttered, "This feels like heaven to me."

Originally built as the Second Presbyterian Church, the African Methodist Episcopalian Church bought the building in 1949 and renamed it after a regional A.M.E  bishop, J.M. Clayborn. Until a dwindling congregation forced the church to be shuttered in 1999, it hosted an astonishing amount of history in the span of 50 years.

For years, the church slept quietly in the south shadow of the FedEx Forum. Countless tourists and citizens have likely walked right by the blighted structure without realizing they passed a hub for the sanitation strike organizers of 1968. Though the National Civil Rights Museum is thriving less than half a mile away from the church, the pulpit that held Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during some of his last moments on earth has been closed off to the public for more than decade.

In October of 2015, Neighborhood Preservation Inc. Clayborn Temple LLC purchased the church for $65,000 from the A.M.E. Church. In the span of a year, the church has been stabilized enough to host the public, but complete renovation could take longer, the costs of which could soar into the millions. NPI has partnered with developers Rob Thompson and Frank Smith to develop and steer the church into it's next phase.

Smith, who is an active member of Downtown Church initially eyed Clayborn as a new space for their congregation and immediately decided the church needed to be utilized for more than worship.
Days before the public was invited in for the ceremony, Smith noted that, “It wouldn’t be enough for it to be used for one congregation, we want to see it come to life for all of the community.”
The conversation about the new purpose for Clayborn is just beginning with Tuesday’s blessing likely being the first of many public input opportunities.
At the close of the ceremony, Thompson offered up a wish of his own, “Heaven help us to not repeat the history we are in here honoring.”

Read more articles by Micaela Watts.

Micaela Watts is a freelance reporter in her hometown of Memphis and has a focused interest in community reporting. Her work has appeared in The Memphis FlyerChalkbeat Tennessee, and The Daily News
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