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Robert Reed Church Sr. (June 18, 1839 – August 29, 1912) was an African-American entrepreneur, businessman and landowner in Memphis, Tennessee, who began his rise during the American Civil War. He was the first African-American "millionaire" in the South. [1] Church built a reputation for great wealth and influence in the business community. He founded Solvent Savings Bank, the first black-owned bank in the city, which extended credit to blacks so they could buy homes and develop businesses. As a philanthropist, Church used his wealth to develop a park, playground, auditorium and other facilities for the black community, who were excluded by state-enacted racial segregation from most such amenities in the city.

Robert R. Church
Robert Reed Church, seated.jpg
Born(1839-06-18)June 18, 1839
DiedAugust 29, 1912(1912-08-29) (aged 73)
Political partyRepublican

The son of a black mother and white father, Church began working as a steward when his father, a steamboat owner, took him along on his route between Memphis and New Orleans. Robert Church bought his first property in Memphis in 1862. He was well established by 1878-79, the years of devastating yellow fever epidemics which resulted in dramatic depopulation in the city. With property devalued, Church bought numerous businesses as well as undeveloped land, with the long-term view of their appreciation as the city recovered. He built his great wealth on this real estate. He purchased the first $1,000 municipal bond to help the city recover from bankruptcy after it was reduced to a Taxing District.[2]

Early lifeEdit

Robert Reed Church was born a slave in 1839 in Holly Springs, Mississippi, as the son of Emmeline, a black American Indian woman from Virginia. His mother was a slave and his father was Captain Charles B. Church, a white steamship owner from Virginia who operated along the Mississippi River.[1] According to family accounts, Emmeline was the daughter of an enslaved "Malay" Malagasy princess and of a white planter from Lynchburg.[3]

Robert's mother Emmeline died in 1851, when he was 12. His father Captain Church began taking Robert along on his river journeys to and from New Orleans. The youth worked as the steward of the steamship's mess hall, picking up business acumen and contacts,[4] including future Louisiana political leader James Lewis[3] and saving money earned. In 1862 Robert Church bought a bar in Memphis, which he eventually traded for a saloon and billiard room. (He must have been free by then to buy property, and his father may have vouched for him.) In 1860, the black population of the city was 3,000, but it rapidly increased as fugitive slaves fled from rural plantations to Union lines in the occupied city. Church had many customers for his businesses and became influential in the developing black community, which reached 20,000 by 1865.[4]

The next year, postwar tensions in the city erupted in the Memphis Riots of 1866, when a white ethnic Irish mob attacked South Memphis, killing 45 blacks and injuring many more, and destroying houses, churches and businesses.[4] The dramatic demographic changes had resulted in competition among ethnic Irish, who dominated the city's police and fire departments; decommissioned black Union soldiers who had been stationed nearby, and other African Americans.[5] Church was shot and wounded in his saloon during the riot.[6] A total of two whites died.

Real estate empireEdit

By 1878-79 Church had acquired considerable wealth. Familiar with the high death tolls from the 1873 yellow fever epidemic, he moved his family to safety outside the city during the even worse epidemic of 1878, as well as the following year. As the city was depopulated by the flight of 25,000 people during the 1878 epidemic and death toll of more than 5,000, the land was devalued. Church saw a great opportunity in Memphis real estate and had the resources to buy up property holdings throughout the city. He acquired commercial buildings, some residential housing, and bars in the red-light district, as well as undeveloped land. It is estimated that in later years he was able to collect approximately $6,000 a month in rent from his properties.

With his immense wealth, Church funded the development of high-quality facilities for black Memphians, who were excluded by the state law of racial segregation from many white institutions at the time. He developed a public park, a playground, a concert hall, and an auditorium. Church used the properties for related philanthropy: he helped sponsor graduation ceremonies, political rallies, and shows in the parks for the city's African Americans. He also hosted and funded a free annual Thanksgiving meal for the black poor. In 1906, Church, Josiah T. Settle, M. L. Clay, and T. H. Hayes established the Solvent Savings Bank, Memphis's first black bank, and Church served as founding president. He ensured that blacks could gain access to loans for businesses and homes, to advance their lives.[7][8]

Personal lifeEdit

Not much is known about Church's personal life. He rarely, if ever, wrote personal correspondence, and never made a public speech, despite his wide popularity and influence in Memphis.

Church married three times. His first wife, Louisa Ayers, was of mixed-race, born into slavery. They both supported education for their two children, a daughter and son. Their daughter Mary Church Terrell was one of the first black American women to earn a college degree. She became a teacher, then a principal, as well as a civil rights activist. In 1909 she was a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and in 1896 the first black woman to be appointed to the school board of a major city (Washington, DC).[9] Church and Louisa divorced.

Secondly he married Anna Wright. They also had a son and daughter. Their son Robert Reed Church, Jr. became a businessman, taking over his father's enterprises. He became politically influential, establishing the Lincoln League in 1916 to work to register black voters, fundraise to help cover poll taxes, and advocate for the interests of African Americans in the Republican Party. Within a short time, he signed up 10,000 new black voters in Memphis, and worked with E. H. Crump and his machine politics. Church served as an adviser to Republican presidents in the 1920s but declined any political appointments.[10] Church eventually married a third time, after Anna died.

The senior Church generally chose to stay outside the politics of his era, which enabled him to maintain influence among both white and black Memphians. He was chosen as a delegate for William McKinley to the 1900 Republican Convention.[7]


Church died August 2, 1912, after a brief illness. He is buried in Elmwood Cemetery on the south side of downtown Memphis.

Church family homeEdit

In 1953, the city of Memphis hosted a demonstration of fire equipment during which the home Robert Church had built for his family in a wealthy mixed race neighborhood was burned to the ground. The event was an act of revenge on the part of Memphis Mayor Edward Hull "Boss" Crump for the Church family's black voter rights activism.[11] The Tri-State Defender called the burning of the Church house "An act of infamy." In 1955 the house and the surrounding neighborhood were paved over by the city to make way for public housing complexes designated exclusively for African-Americans.[12]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b Jessie Carney Smith, ed., "Robert Reed Church Sr.," in Notable Black American Men, 1 (Detroit: Gale Research, 1999), 202.
  2. ^ Jessie Carney Smith, ed., "Robert Reed Church Sr.," in Encyclopedia of African American Business, Volume 1 (Westport: Greenwood, 2006), 165.
  3. ^ a b Ingham, John N., and Lynne B. Feldman, African-American Business Leaders: A Biographical Dictionary, Greenwood Publishing Group, 1994, p. 135.
  4. ^ a b c Ryan, James G. (1977), "The Memphis Riots of 1866: Terror in a black community during Reconstruction", The Journal of Negro History 62 (3): 243-257, at JSTOR.
  5. ^ Carden Art, and Christopher J. Coyne, "An Unrighteous Piece of Business: A New Institutional Analysis of the Memphis Riot of 1866", Mercatus Center, George Mason University, July 2010, accessed February 1, 2014.
  6. ^ Logan, Rayford; Winston, Michael (1982). Dictionary of American Negro Biography. New York: W.W. Norton and Co. p. 109.
  7. ^ a b Tucker, David. American National Biography Online. American National Biography. Retrieved September 5, 2014.
  8. ^ DeCosta-Willis, Miriam, Notable Black Memphians, Cambria Press, 2008, p. 9.
  9. ^ David M. Tucker, "Church, Robert Reed", American National Biography Online, February 2000.
  10. ^ "Church, Robert Reed, Jr. (1885-1952) | The Black Past: Remembered and Reclaimed". Retrieved 2018-05-22.
  11. ^ Crawford, Charles Wann; Church, Roberta; Church, Annette E.; Sims, Phyllis; Hesse, Sharon; Memphis State University. Oral History Research Office (1973). "Robert Church family of Memphis" : interviews with Roberta Church and Annette E. Church, January 4 and 5, 1973, and July 10, 1973 / by Charles W. Crawford, transcribers - Phyllis Sims and Sharon Hesse. University Libraries University of Memphis. Memphis, Tenn. : Memphis State University.
  12. ^ Lauterbach, Preston, "Memphis Burning," Places Journal.

Further readingEdit

  • Biles, Roger. "Robert R. Church, Jr. of Memphis: Black Republican Leader in the Age of Democratic Ascendancy, 1928-1940." Tennessee Historical Quarterly 42.4 (1983): 362-382. in JSTOR
  • Church, Annette E., and Roberta Church, The Robert R. Churches of Memphis: A Father and Son Who Achieved in Spite of Race (Memphis: A. E. Church, 1974)
  • Ingham, John N., and Lynne B. Feldman, African-American Business Leaders: A Biographical Dictionary, Greenwood Publishing Group, 1994, ISBN 0-313-27253-0
  • Kranz, Rachel (2004). African-American Business Leaders and Entrepreneurs. Infobase Publishing. pp. 49–51.
  • Melton, Gloria B. Blacks in Memphis, Tennessee, 1920-1955: A Historical Study (Ph.D. dissertation, Washington State University, 1982)
  • Lamon, Lester. Black Tennesseans, 1900-1930 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1977)
  • "Robert Church family of Memphis": interviews with Roberta Church and Annette E. Church, January 4 and 5, 1973, and July 10, 1973, by Charles W. Crawford, transcribers - Phyllis Sims and Sharon Hesse
  • Phelps, Shirelle, ed., Contemporary Black Biography, various volumes (Detroit: Gale Research, 1999)
  • Smith, Jessie Carney ed. (2006). Encyclopedia of African American Business. Greenwood. pp. 164–67.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  • Lauterbach, Preston. Beale Street Dynasty: Sex, Song and the Struggle for the Soul of Memphis (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2015)