At a time when the average Black person in the South earned a few dollars per week, Robert Reed Church was already making it big. The man born a slave had become known as the “Boss of Beale Street”, an iconic street in Memphis. Church, who would invest so much in Memphis, would not only become the South’s first Black millionaire, but many historians agree that Memphis wouldn’t have survived to become the city it is known today without him.
Church opened a saloon that served Black people, a hotel, a restaurant, the first Black-owned and operated bank in Memphis, a real estate business and the popular 2,000-seat auditorium that would host U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt in 1902. But because Church earned some of his income from whorehouses, his name was hardly mentioned in Memphis history until the civil rights movement.
“Church was complex in a true sense in that, yes, he made money in whorehouses and saloons but at the same time he was really a community builder,” Preston Lauterbach writes in Beale Street Dynasty: Sex, Song and the Struggle for the Soul of Memphis.
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Church, the product of an interracial relationship, was born in Holly Springs, Mississippi, on June 18, 1839. His father, Charles B. Church, was a steamboat captain while his mother, Emmeline, was an enslaved seamstress who died when he was twelve years old. Church later worked as a cabin boy and a steward after his father had trained him in the steamboat business.
Then at age 23, while working as a steward on a boat, Church was compelled to jump out from the boat into the river and swim ashore after the boat was captured by the Union Army in 1862. Ending up in Memphis, Church knew he had to start life afresh on his own and he was more than ready to do so. In time, Church became one of the most successful businessmen in the South after having settled in Memphis with his wife Louisa in 1865.
Church first acquired a saloon before eventually owning a restaurant and a downtown hotel. His ownership of a Black-owned pool hall in 1865 landed him in court but he won the case. Two weeks after that court victory, Church got shot at by a white mob during the Memphis Race Riot of 1866.
Neither the anti-Black violence that followed nor the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1878 was enough to make Church leave Memphis at a time wealthy people in the city were abandoning it. Instead, he stayed, becoming the first citizen to buy a bond for $1,000, to restore the city after its bankruptcy in 1879. Church bought up property holdings throughout the city during this period while owning a number of businesses along Memphis’s Beale Street. Some reports say that at a point, he was collecting approximately $6,000 a month in rent from his properties.
It was in 1899 that Church went big again on infrastructure development in the city when he purchased a tract of land on Beale Street and developed it into picnic grounds, gardens and a 2,000-seat auditorium. The venture became known as Church’s Park and Auditorium, the first major urban recreational center in the nation owned by an African American, according to a report. Church had built the recreational center in response to the lack of public parks for Black people in Memphis, who made up almost half of the population of the city.
In 1902, when President Roosevelt addressed a crowd of more than 10,000 who flooded Church’s auditorium and the surrounding grounds, it became a big moment for Church and Black America as a whole — the man born enslaved had hosted the president amid racial discrimination. He had also become admired by both Black and White communities. His park and auditorium did not only welcome speakers and performers such as Booker T. Washington, James Weldon Johnson, and the Fisk Jubilee Singers but also helped sponsor political rallies, graduation ceremonies, and shows for Black people in Memphis.
Church’s life was filled with controversies, however. In 1878, he was shot for the second time by a local sheriff reportedly in a fight over a Black woman. In 1903, after a disagreement with two White men, Church landed in jail. Then news spread about his whorehouses that sources said exploited White women. These incidents notwithstanding, Church before his death in 1912 was the backbone of Memphis. As one account put it, “no appeal to Church for aid or public enterprise for the benefit of Memphis was ever made in vain. He was for Memphis, first, last and always.”