Robert Reed Church
     ...The first black Millionaire   



Robert Reed Church was an African-American entrepreneur and landowner who lived most of his adult life in Memphis.  His father, Charles B. Church was a white steamboat owner-captain.  His mother, Emmeline, was a mixed-race slave owned by his father.  She died when Robert was 12 years old.  His father never legally or formally recognized his son and didn't educate him.  However he did train him in the steamboat business where he was able to work as a steward - the highest position that a black could achieve.  In 1862 Church was working as a steward on the steamer "Victoria" when it was captured by Union troops during the Civil War.  The Union left the 23 year old Church stranded in Memphis - and from then on he essentially became a self-made man and amassed a fortune.

Robert Reed Church

Click on small photos to see an enlargement

Robert Reed Church was born in Holly Springs, Mississippi in 1839, the son of Charles B. Church, a wealthy white owner of two luxury steamboats, and Emmaline, one of the man's slaves who worked as a seamstress on the plantation.  In later years Robert maintained that neither he nor his mother had ever been treated as a slave even though that was their legal status.    His father may have treated him with affection, but he never formally recognized the relationship - nor did he educate his son, but he train him in the steamboat business.


Holly Springs, Mississippi, Circa 1839

Memphis, 1860

On the steamboats, Robert worked as a dishwasher, cook, and steward, which was the highest position that a black could then achieve.  While working as a steward on the steamer Victoria in 1862, it was captured by the Union Army and 23 year old Robert Church was dropped off in Memphis.  During this period, Church began to establish himself as a successful Memphis businessman.  At various times he owned a saloon, hotel , bank, restaurant, park, auditorium, along with various real estate investments.  He was on his way to becoming a millionaire. 


During the Memphis race riot of 1866, a white mob attacked Church's saloon, shot him and left him for dead.  He recovered but was determined to stay in Memphis.   He later testified against police during the investigation of the riots.  For the rest of his life, he faced trouble with the police and with the underworld elements who frequented his establishments.  In 1878, Church was shot by a local sheriff, supposedly in a fight over a black woman.  In 1903, he was in a brawl with two white men and ended in jail. 

          Riots 1866


Charles B. Church

Robert Robert Robert Robert at home

Atlantic City 1900

When the yellow fever epidemic of 1878 hit, Robert Church stayed in the city.  As Memphis was de-populated by the epidemic, the land was devalued and Church saw a great opportunity in real estate.  He invested cheaply and increased his property holdings throughout the city.   His properties grew to include undeveloped land, commercial buildings, residential housing, and bars in the red-light district of Beale Street.  It's been said that he collected approximately $6,000 a month in rent from his properties. 

Church Billiard-Saloon Church Saloon Robert-Handy-Priest Article-cover 1975 Article

Church owned a hotel in downtown Memphis, on the southwest corner of South Second and Gayoso streets. The hotel was advertised as the only first-class Colored hotel in the city.  It had large airy rooms, a dining facility, and was furnished with the best equipment of the day.    Based on the address of the Church Billiard-Saloon in the above photo, the hotel was either on the 2nd Floor of this building or else on the opposite corner of Second and Gayoso.  No separate photo of the hotel has surfaced to date.


In the 1880s, Church built for himself and his family a big residence which had 14 rooms, including a double drawing room 32 x 16 feet and mural decorations by a famed Italian artist.  It was one the first homes of the Queen Anne style erected in Memphis - a three story frame imposing building with four bay windows.  It was elaborately furnished.  Unfortunately his heirs didn't keep up taxes on the house and it was seized by the city in the 1930s.  It was demolished during the construction of the Foote Homes in 1941.  The address of the home was 363 Lauderdale, changed to 384 S. Lauderdale after re-numbering.

Church Home   


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.  After the 1878 yellow fever epidemic, Memphis had lost so much of its tax base that the city was reduced to giving up its charter.   In 1893 Robert Church was the first citizen to buy a bond - "Bond, Number One", for one thousand dollars, to restore the City Charter.  He was a generous contributor to many other civic causes included buying the city a patrol wagon during one yellow fever crisis.  In 1901 when the United Confederate Veterans planned to hold their convention in Memphis, the city solicited funds to build a "temporary" $80,000 auditorium  in the area of Confederate Park.  Robert Church was one of the first to step forward and donate $1,000. 

Confederate Hall 1901


 In 1908 the Beale Street Baptist Church was facing foreclosure by creditors.  Robert Church and his bank came to the church's rescue and paid off its creditors with liberal repayment terms.  Today this historic church is once again in danger, this time, of being demolished.


Beale Street Baptist    

Solvent Savings Bank and Trust

In 1906, Church helped to found the Solvent Savings Bank and Trust Company, which was  the first black-owned and operated bank in Memphis.  The bank survived the financial panic of 1907, which closed older and much larger banks.   In 1909 he stepped down as bank president and his son Robert took over.


1906 Opening Invitation

1881 Church Check

Church Park and Auditorium

Church Park and Auditorium

In 1899, Memphis didn't provide recreational facilities for black citizens, nor were there suitable places where black theatrical troupes could perform.  Robert Church bought a tract of land and created Church Park, which included a playground and a concert hall that hosted such prestigious guests as Booker T. Washington, President Theodore Roosevelt, and W. C. Handy.  This Park-Auditorium was particularly important because it was a time when blacks weren't even allowed in Memphis city parks or public auditoriums.  His park was called "Church's Park and Auditorium" and was located on a site of over six acres on Beale, near Fourth.


The auditorium was equipped with the best and most modern equipment of the time.  It could seat 2,200 people and had cost $50,000 to $80,000.  This was the only venture of its kind in the United States - owned and operated by a person of color for members of his race.  W. C. Handy was employed as orchestra leader of the auditorium

The grounds were beautifully landscaped.

Theodore speaks to 10,000 in 1902


Annette-Roberta 1956 Church Park Today Church Park Today Marker dedication 1983

Years later, the city took over management of the park and auditorium, and during the 1940s, in a racially motivated move, they renamed the Auditorium "Beale Avenue Auditorium". After years of neglect, some structures in the park were demolished, including the auditorium.  Then the land sat empty and barren until 1987, when it was finally refurbished and re-landscaped.  In 1993, the park was listed in the National Register of Historic Places, and was made part of the Beale Street Historic District. In 1994, Roberta Church, the granddaughter of the founder, gave the park a large 22,000 pound white granite and bronze memorial monument, erected in memory of and dedicated to her father, Robert Church, Jr. The monument features a bronze bust of Robert R. Church, Sr.


The Church Family

Robert Church, Sr. founded virtually a Memphis dynasty - one of the most prestigious African American families in the United States.  His first marriage was to a well educated ex-slave Mary Louisa Ayers in 1862.  This marriage produced Mary Church Terrell, one of the South's most prominent black women, and Thomas Ayers Church.   Louisa ran a very successful hair salon for "elite white women" at 56 Court Street.  It was this business that provided most of the income for the family in the early years.  She and Robert divorced in 1870 and she later moved to New York.   In 1885, Church married Anna Wright.  This union produced Robert Church, Jr. and Annette Elaine Church.  The wives Anna and Louisa, were friends and remained so after the marriage. 

The Church Family  


Anna Anna Wright Church Familty Mary Church Robert Jr.

Mary  & Annette

    Robert - Thomas

Thomas - Mary - Louisa

Mary's license


Anna - Blanche - Annette

Mary Elizabeth Church was born in Memphis.  When she was 6 years old her parents sent her to the Antioch College Model School in Yellow Springs, Ohio for her elementary and secondary education.  She then attended Oberlin College - an African American woman among mostly white male students.  She earned her bachelor's degree in 1884, and her master's in 1888 - the first African American women to do so.   Mary was a noted writer, educator, and activist, who co-founded the NAACP and served as first President.  Although her father disapproved of her working she became a teacher and met the man she would marry, Robert Terrell.  Since married women weren't allowed to teach at the time, she resigned when they wed in 1891.   Mary also led a successful struggle against segregation in Washington DC's restaurants and hotels.


     Mary Church


Mary Church Terrell Mary's Classroom Washington Home Mary Church Terrell



Robert Reed Church, Jr., was born in 1885.  After graduating from Oberlin College and working at a Wall Street bank in New York City, he returned to Memphis to work at his father's Solvent Savings Bank and Trust.  In 1912, he resigned to monitor his father's extensive property holdings throughout Memphis.  Turning to politics, he became a major contributor and director of the Tennessee Republican Party and was among the most influential African Americans in Southern politics during the 1920s.  He Was married to Sara Johnson and had one daughter, Sara Roberta.  He died in 1952.


Robert Church Jr.

Sara Johnson

Roberta 1937 Robert- Geo W Lee Robert in his office Robert Jr. funeral

Annette Elaine Church was a charter member of the Memphis branch of the NAACP, and was active in numerous Republican groups.  After the death of Robert Jr. wife,  Annette  was responsible for the upbringing of Sara Roberta Church.

Annette Church

Annette at College  

Thomas Ayres Church went to law school at Columbia University and later became a police clerk and lawyer in New York City and editor of his own journal.  He also authored several books.  When his mother divorced Robert, she got custody of the children and moved to New York City.  Perhaps because he was young when they divorced, Thomas seems to have more connections to his mother and to New York than to Memphis.


Thomas Church  


Directory Listings...Saloons, Billiards, Hair Dressing Salon, Residences, Church Park-Auditorium

1867 - on DeSoto 1868 - HairDressing on Court 1870 - Saloon on Main 1877 - Saloon on 2nd

1883 - Saloon on 2nd 1886 -362 Lauderdale 1901- several Saloons 1906 - Park-Auditorium

Robert Reed Church died in 1912 and was entombed in the family mausoleum at Memphis Elmwood Cemetery.

In 1984, more than a half century after his death, the Memphis Chamber of Commerce honored Robert Reed Church Sr. by naming him one of Memphis' pioneer businessmen.

  Church Mausoleum

Robert Senior Anna Annette Robert Junior Roberta


Location of
grave is

Mary Church
is buried in
Lincoln Mem.


Church plaque  

Robert-Short Obit


Sara Johnson Church grave




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