Feb 9, 2023 - News

New life for MLK's office

Prince Hall Masonic Lodge in Atlanta

Auburn Avenue's Prince Hall Masonic Lodge. Photo: Courtesy of Charles Lawrence, Lord Aeck Sargent

The long-anticipated reconstruction of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Auburn Avenue office in the Prince Hall Masonic Lodge is finally moving forward.

  • It will become the newest addition to the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park that preserves his birth home, tomb and Ebenezer Baptist Church.  

Driving the news: After years of federal lobbying and a more than $10 million fundraising campaign, construction and rehabilitation of the building are scheduled to begin this summer, Edward Bowen, an attorney and developer with the Masons — who still own the building — tells Axios.

Why it matters:  Judy Forte, superintendent of the King National Historic Park, told Axios the addition will complete the park's mandate to "preserve, protect and interpret the place where Dr. King was born, where he lived, where he worked, where he worshipped and where he's buried."

  • "We had all of those components except for where he worked, outside of where he was co-pastor of Ebenezer."

The big picture: The Lodge housed many influential African American organizations after its 1940 construction, including the first Black-owned radio station in the country WERD and the headquarters of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the organization King co-founded and that coordinated civil rights protests across the South.

  • King kept an office in the building in the 1960s. It was the hub from which he disseminated much of his vision as the SCLC's first president, including through WERD radio addresses upstairs.
  • The SCLC had a dark room and two printing presses on Auburn, where some of its iconic posters including "I am a man" were made.

What's happening: Bowen told Axios the first floor and basement will be open to the public, the second floor will be leased out and the third floor will remain Masonic space.

  • The Park Service will conduct oral histories and source historical furnishings and books to "interpret" the space and recreate the SCLC headquarters and King’s office.

Catch up quick: The late Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) pushed to strengthen federal protections for King’s birth home and tomb. In 2018 his bill became law, and it also expanded the Park’s boundaries to include the Prince Hall Masonic Lodge.

  • The Masons coordinated the fundraising to rehabilitate the building and reconstruct it as it was in the 1960s. Rep. Nikema Williams (D-Ga.) also secured $200,000 of federal funding for the project.
  • Jack Pyburn, the principal and preservation architect working on the project told Axios fortunately much of the building's historical character remains intact, but they will replace windows, restore signage and reconstruct the SCLC space.
MLK points to a map
Dr. Martin Luther King points to Selma, Ala. on a map at a Southern Christian Leadership Conference office in 1965, as he calls for a three-pronged attack on racial barriers. Photo: Getty Images

Zoom out: Forte told Axios she hopes the new addition will also draw visitors west down Auburn Avenue into the once thriving African American business district that many today are working to revive.

  • She wants the National Historical Park to become "a gateway" to the community and the rebuilding district. "We really want to expand visitors' interest into not just what we have to offer but what the community has to offer," she said.

What they're saying: "It’s important for people to know about what happened during the latter part of the 20th century and the impact that Atlanta and Martin Luther King, Jr. had on not just Atlanta, but America and the world," Lewis told the AJC in 2016 about his bill.

Of note: Pyburn, who helped author a Historical Structure Report on the building, said the Lodge has massive historical significance, calling it the "civil anchor" of Auburn Avenue.

  • "The Masons were the civic leaders of the city. They were a very important part of life on Auburn Avenue, and obviously in the Black community, and still are for that matter," he said.

What we're watching: Forte is working to secure the Park Service funding to interpret and furnish the space. In the meantime, she says they hear a lot of rumors about original furniture, including King’s desk and the SCLC conference table, that allegedly remain at large in the area.

  • "I hear things are out there. If you hear where they are let me know!"

Editor's note: This story has been updated to note the federal funds secured for the project. 

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