Mason Temple, a flagship of the Church of God in Christ (COGIC), was a monumental achievement, becoming upon its completion in 1945 the largest gathering place in Memphis as well as the largest church owned and operated by African Americans in the United States. The three-story building was constructed of brick, stone, reinforced concrete, and steel. The main auditorium’s seating capacity was five thousand. The balcony seated two thousand, and the assembly room under the balcony also had the capacity to seat two thousand. The temple had a baggage-check registration room, post office, barber shop, beauty salon, first aid and emergency ward, nursery, male and female rest rooms and shower baths, shoe shine parlor, thirty-six administrative offices, two industrial kitchens, two cafeterias, concession area, photographic booth, an elaborate indoor and outdoor sound system, and a modern heating and cooling system. The cost of building Mason Temple was almost a quarter of a million dollars.
Mason Temple emerged out of Bishop C. H. Mason’s dream of a modern national convocation center/headquarters complex and illustrates his progressive vision for the future of his church. It is also a memorial to the legacy of Mason’s life and achievements as architect and chief apostle/senior bishop of COGIC. The building was named after Mason to commemorate him as COGIC’s founder and was erected to honor COGIC pioneers. Mason Temple is also a monument to international peace and unity and served as a rallying place for freedom during the Civil Rights Movement.
Throughout the first decade of the twentieth century, Mason organized COGIC’s national convocations in Memphis. From 1907 to 1922, Mason conducted his national meetings at his local church Saints Home (today Temple Church), located on 392 South Wellington Street. By 1920 Mason needed more space for his national meetings and in 1922 purchased land at 958 South Fifth Street in south Memphis. With the help of his wife, Leila, and COGIC’s national leaders, he erected the National Tabernacle, where COGIC’s national convocations were held from 1923 until 1936, the year it was destroyed by fire. Mason then held convocations at Temple Church, located at 672 South Lauderdale, from 1936 to 1945.
In 1940 Mason started rebuilding the national temple at South Fifth Street, appointing Bishop Riley F. Williams as chairman of his building commission. COGIC General Secretary Ulysses Ellis Miller was appointed supervisor of construction, and Elder Henry Taylor was the architect. In the mid-1930s, C. H. and Leila Mason had begun drawing plans to erect a mega-temple built on the same design as the White House, but these plans faltered when the U.S. entry into World War II led to government restrictions on the use of building materials, especially steel. When Williams, Miller, and Taylor started construction, COGIC had only $2,900 in its building-fund treasury. From 1940 to 1945, COGIC’s national leaders, Women’s Department (Sister Ida Baker and other church women bought the neon sign mounted in front of Mason Temple), Sunday school, YPWW (Young People Willing Workers), pastors, members, and Memphis citizens helped Mason raise enough money to rebuild the national temple. Mason Temple was completed in 1945, and the building was dedicated during the convocation that same year.
Many historical and cultural events have taken place at Mason Temple. In 1948 social activist Paul Robeson held a freedom rally there to espouse the cause of the Progressive Party and the presidential campaign of Henry Wallace. On July 31, 1959, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his first speech at Mason Temple during a “get out the vote” freedom rally. A plethora of gospel stars have performed at Mason Temple, including Arizona Dranes, Utah Smith, Ernestine Washington, Rosetta Tharpe, Mahalia Jackson, and many others.
In November 1961, ten thousand people came to Mason Temple to attend Mason’s funeral. His body was entombed in a marble vault located in the lobby of the temple. During the Memphis sanitation strike of 1968, sanitation workers rallied for a living wage at Mason Temple, and on April 3, 1968, King delivered his final speech (“I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”) there. In 1993 President Bill Clinton addressed COGIC delegates during the convocation, and in the midst of his 2000 presidential campaign, Vice President Al Gore also addressed COGIC delegates. Today, Mason Temple is still a monument for racial unity and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as one of the historic sites of the Civil Rights Movement.
A Pictorial Review of the National Headquarters of the Church of God in
Charles H. Pleas, Fifty Years of Achievement, History of
the Church of God in Christ (c. 1950)