Two Buildings, Many Stories

On the corner of Huling Avenue and St. Martin Street in Memphis, Tennessee stands the former Lorraine Motel. The two-story building does not tower over the landscape; rather, its brick exterior transitions seamlessly into the walkway leading up to its entrance. This site holds many stories. Operating as an whites-only hotel in the 1920’s and 30’s, the Lorraine became an interracial space after World War II. It was not the only motel in downtown Memphis open to black patrons, but it was the only interracial one. This building was unique in an era of segregation.

Exterior of the Lorraine Motel and the National Civil Rights Museum

Martin Luther King, Jr. was among the many residents who stayed at the Lorraine hotel, and he did so exactly once – in April 1968. On April 8th of that year, he was assassinated on the balcony. Thus began the building’s history as a memorial in Memphis. The owner, Walter Bailey, transformed room 306 – King’s Room – into a sacred space, leaving it exactly as King did before he was killed. He never rented the room again, but continued to rent the other fifteen rooms. The building was now both a place of rest and a site of political and cultural history for the city and the nation. It continued in this respect until Bailey filed for bankruptcy in 1982. The Lorraine was put up for auction, and the Save the Lorraine organization raised enough money to buy the building. This is the group that decided to formally transform the motel into a museum, and today it houses the National Civil Rights Museum. This museum is filled with objects that speak to the richness of the city’s past and its place in the national history of the Civil Rights Movement. But the building itself, its physical walls, tell just as many stories.

Exterior of the Stax Museum of American Soul Music

On our one-day trip to Memphis, the WPAMC class of 2018 also visited the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. Like the National Civil Rights Museum, the history of this building speaks to the shifting meanings that objects experience throughout their history. The building originally operated as a movie theater on McLemore Avenue. It became Stax Records in 1960, when the company founders purchased the site and began to turn it into a recording studio. The building hosted countless greats in Soul Music – Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, and Rufus Thomas to name a few. Like the Lorraine Motel, this was an interracial space, welcoming aspiring artists of all backgrounds to sleep, work, and make music together. While the company continued its success into the 1970’s, including its purchase by Atlantic records and expansion to other cities, Stax ultimately filed of bankruptcy in 1975. The building fell into disrepair and was purchased by a local church in 1981 seeking to turn the space into its community center. To fulfill this purpose, this theater-turned recording studio-turned future community center was demolished in 1989. But the church never built its community center, and the lot remained bare. Thus, in the late 1990’s, a local group called the Soulsville Foundation purchased the lot and rebuilt a museum in 2003 to tell this rich story. Today, this museum presents the birth, spread, and impact of Memphis soul music on American history, in part by recreating the recording studio the building once held. The Soulsville foundation also operates the Stax Music Academy out of a neighboring building, an initiative to give local children education in music. Like the National Civil Rights Museum, the building speaks to a rich and multi-layered history.

On our journey throughout the Southern material world, the WPAMC Class of 2018 witnessed many ways in which the landscape, architecture, and material objects interact to tell the diverse stories that make up Southern material culture. As I soaked in the history, it struck me that the buildings themselves are a key part of understanding the South’s material past and present. Both the National Museum of Civil Rights and the Stax Museum lived many lives with different purposes. Both buildings welcomed people within its walls regardless of their background. Both buildings risked destruction and the loss of their histories. Both buildings were revitalized by local initiatives and foundations seeking to preserve and share that history with the world. By looking at the history behind these, we can better understand the many stories that lie within them and the many meanings they have had over time.

For more information, please visit the following websites or the sites themselves:


By Allison Robinson, WPAMC Class of 2018


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