Robert Reed Church

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Robert Reed Church (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. Multiple sources have noted him as the first African-American millionaire in the South, but by the end of the 20th century, historians concluded his total wealth reached $700,000, not a round million.[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.

The son of a mixed-race 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, Louisiana. 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. A popular account holds that he bought the first $1000 bond to help the city reduce its debt after its failure in 1878-79; this reflects his influence but has been disproved by historians.[2]

Early life[edit]

Robert Reed Church was born in 1839 in either Holly Springs, Mississippi or Memphis, Tennessee, as the son of Emmeline, a mixed-race woman from Virginia. Sources do not agree on whether or not his mother was a slave; if so, Robert would have been born into slavery, under the principle in slave law of partus sequitur ventrem.[3] His father was Captain Charles B. Church, a white steamship owner from Virginia who operated along the Mississippi River. According to family accounts, Emmeline was the daughter of an enslaved "Malay" Malagasy princess and of a white planter from Lynchburg.[4]

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, 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.[5]

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.[5] 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.[6] Church was shot and wounded in his saloon during the riot.[7] A total of two whites died.

Real estate empire[edit]

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.

Multiple sources refer to Church as the first black millionaire, although it is now generally accepted that his wealth reached about $700,000.[1] Popular myth holds that Church bought the first $1,000 bond that aided restoration of the city's credit after the epidemic, but city records do not support that.[2]

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 established the Solvent Savings Bank, Memphis's first black bank, and served as founding president. He ensured that blacks could gain access to loans for businesses and homes, to advance their lives.[2]

Personal life[edit]

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).[8] 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, in party by paying their poll taxes. 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.[9] 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. [2]


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


  1. ^ a b Jessie Carney Smith, ed., “Robert Reed Church Sr.,” in Notable Black American Men, 1 (Detroit: Gale Research, 1999), 202.
  2. ^ a b c d Tucker, David. American National Biography Online. American National Biography. Retrieved 5 September 2014. 
  3. ^ Logan, Rayford; Winston, Michael (1982). Dictionary of American Negro Biography. New York: W.W. Norton and Co. p. 109. 
  4. ^ Feldman, Ingham (1994), p. 135
  5. ^ a b 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.
  6. ^ Art Carden 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 1 February 2014
  7. ^ Logan, Rayford; Winston, Michael (1982). Dictionary of American Negro Biography. New York: W.W. Norton and Co. p. 109. 
  8. ^ David M. Tucker, "Church, Robert Reed" American National Biography Online, Feb. 2000
  9. ^ "Robert R. Church, Jr., 1885-1952", Black Past, accessed 23 February 2015


  • Annette E. Church 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., Feldman, Lynne B., African-American Business Leaders: A Biographical Dictionary, Greenwood Publishing Group, 1994, ISBN 0-313-27253-0
  • Gloria B. Melton, Blacks in Memphis, Tennessee, 1920-1955: A Historical Study (Ph.D. diss., Washington State University, 1982)
  • Lester Lamon, Black Tennesseans, 1900-1930 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1977)
  • Shirelle Phelps, ed., Contemporary Black Biography, various volumes. (Detroit: Gale Research, 1999)