The Lorraine Motel was forever etched in America’s collective memory with the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, but even before that fateful day, the property at 450 Mulberry Street had a fascinating history in its own right. Before it was the Lorraine, it was the Marquette Hotel that catered to black clientele in segregated Memphis. Then, in 1945 black businessman Walter Bailey purchased the hotel, which he re-christened the Lorraine after his wife Loree and the popular jazz song, “Sweet Lorraine.” The motel became a destination for blacks and appeared in the Negro Motorists Green Book or “Green Guide,” which identified establishments that welcomed black travelers when Jim Crow restrictions offered limited options for services and lodging.
Beyond the differences in name and customers, Bailey made physical changes to the motel. Over the next two decades, the Lorraine added a second floor and almost thirty more rooms, in addition to drive-up parking, large front windows, and a swimming pool. The Lorraine’s new design reflected the Space Age-inspired Googie style (geometric shapes and bright colors) that was popular in California in the fifties and sixties. The Lorraine’s sign, with its turquoise frame, yellow oval, and white circles is an excellent example of this trend. With its stylized exterior, excellent café, and superior service, the motel hosted more than just travelers; the Lorraine was also the site of important business meetings and celebratory gatherings, such as weddings.
The Lorraine was the preferred stop for many blacks who came to Memphis. Its guestbook was a veritable who’s who of black celebrities in the forties, fifties, and sixties. Entertainers like Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughn, Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, and Otis Redding were all guests at the motel, and two famous songs, Wilson Pickett’s “The Midnight Hour” and Eddie Floyd’s “Knock on Wood,” were both composed at the Lorraine.
Negro League baseball greats like Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson and Jackie Robinson stayed at the Lorraine when they were in Memphis. It was also preferred by important figures in the black business and political communities. Martin Luther King, Jr. stayed there on his trips to Memphis.
The Lorraine Motel reflected the monumental changes experienced by blacks in postwar America well before that moment in 1968 outside room 306 cemented the building’s place in American history.
Photos courtesy of the family of Carolyn Champion, daughter of Walter and Loree Bailey