In 1945, Walter Bailey purchased The Lorraine Hotel located 450 Mulberry in downtown Memphis, Tennessee. It was originally constructed in 1925. Widely known as the location of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination the hotel has contributed much more to our shared African American history than just this tragedy.
The Lorraine welcomed all guest when many other hotels in the south were selective with their service. The upscale establishment welcomed black and white alike offering clean space, home-cooked meals, and affordable rates. The Lorraine became a hotspot for the artists recording down the street at Stax recording studios. Guests included Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, Nat King Cole, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Eddie Floyd and so many more.
After Dr. King was assassinated, the hotel began to lose its luster. Like man urban areas in the 1970s and 1980s drugs and crime played a role in the destruction. Eventually, the hotel was cleaned out and black leaders of the city pooled monies to buy the hotel at auction. They were successful and with the assistance of a new governor began the process of creating the National Civil Rights Museum.
On a personal note, the Lorraine Motel has always intrigued me. My father is from Memphis, Tennessee and every summer growing up we would pay homage to his home by driving twelve hours west on Interstate 40 to the city by the river. We would always pass by the Lorraine. My father would speak of its history, and point out the wreath in front of the balcony where Dr. King was gunned down. The problem was all of my family in Memphis, Tennessee had been visiting the Lorraine regularly. My cousins would go for school trips, the older members of the family remembered staying there when the motel was open for business, and they all discussed participating in events there. Everyone had visited and no one was interested in taking me.
I sought out a way to experience the Lorraine on my own. Opportunity knocked during my matriculation at North Carolina A&T State University. In order to graduate all students are mandated a set amount of community service hours. That summer when my father and I went to Memphis I had reached out to the National Civil Rights Museum and inquired about volunteering. I was in! I was thrilled to visit the museum and it was well worth the wait. As a volunteer intern I was tasked with walking the museum in the morning ahead of all guests to make sure nothing had fallen and that all the lights were functional. This experience of walking through the National Civil Rights Museum alone in the stillness of all of the history, in the presence of what Dr. Martin Luther King‘s visit to Memphis in 1968 stood for it was breathtaking. From the Klan uniform, to the bus, to the garbage can, to Mahalia Jackson singing in room 306 this remarkable space still shakes me to this day. I am forever grateful for this monument to black history and the black experience.