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How Memphis' Lorraine Motel became a mainstay in Black history

The Lorraine Motel is full of African American history, including that of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and now it's a beacon in the Memphis community.
Posted at 9:18 PM, Feb 10, 2023

Blocks away from the funky music of Beale Street, on the south edge of downtown Memphis, sits the two-story Lorraine Motel.

Built in the 1920s, the motel on Mulberry Street has gone through some life-changing events. During its early days, it was a Jim Crow-era Whites-only establishment.

Dr. Noelle Trent is the director of interpretation, collections and education at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee.

"In the 1920s, it was the Marquette and the Windsor hotel," Trent said. "Then in 1945, Walter and Laurie Bailey, an African American business couple, purchased the motel and opened it as the Lorraine Motel, and it became this oasis in the segregated South, particularly for Black people. It was featured in the Green Book, an African American travel guide. And then over the years, they built additions onto the museum."

In the 1950s and 60s, the motel was a safe haven in the segregated South for weary Black travelers — and iconic Black musicians.

"You'd have people like Aretha Franklin and Sam Cooke, Satchel Paige, come and stay at the Lorraine," Trent said. "The artists from the Stax record label, which is Isaac Hayes' label, would come and hang out in the swimming pool, so this was a place that had a storied history even before April 4th, 1968."

That day, Laurie Bailey suffered a stroke and died five days later. But the building and that date is also forever known in regards to one of the most significant moments in American history: the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

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Dr. King stayed there while in town to support striking sanitation workers. He was on the second-floor balcony leaving for dinner when an assassin fired a fatal bullet from a nearby boarding house.

Room 306, where King stayed, is now a time capsule.

"It was definitely impactful, being able to see that area that again you only hear in the history books," said Khalid Muhammad, a museum visitor.

During their father-son road trip to Virginia, Muhammad took some fatherly advice and stopped in Memphis specifically to see the national shrine.

"I'm definitely glad that he made the call and got us here today," he said.

Before the motel became part of the National Civil Rights Museum, it was almost lost to the community through bankruptcy.

"In the 1980s after Dr. King's assassination, the hotel goes into a decline," Trent said. "By the 70s and 80s, there's a question of what's going to happen to it, and there's talk about making it a parking lot. And the community said, 'Absolutely not.'"

Memphis activists and labor unions banded together to buy the dilapidated motel. "They were able to save it at auction, and in 1991, we opened as the nation's first museum specifically dedicated to the African American civil rights story," Trent said.

Decades later, the space is still improving, as it keeps up with the times and adds displays and experiences to the discussion. 

"What makes the National Civil Rights Museum special is that people understand our purpose is more than just showing objects," Trent said. "We view our purpose is to serve as a catalyst for positive social change."

Trent said they serve as somewhat of a lighthouse in the community, especially during Black History Month.

But, the hotel is more than the just where Dr. King had his final night of rest.

"They come in thinking that they're going to see the room where Dr. King spent his final hours, and then they encounter this 400-year history that allows them to understand what the movement was about and their responsibility to help create and perpetuate those changes that were advocated so long ago," Trent said.

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Sen. Cory Booker.

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Advocates for the legislation said it would invest $10 million over five years in the National Museum of African American History and Culture.