Robert Reed Church, Sr. (1839-1912) was one of America's most profound "rags to riches" stories. Church not only became the South's first African American millionaire, he did it after having been born a slave.
Although born a slave in Holly Springs, MS, Church was able to go to work for his white father after the death of his mother in 1851. Rising to the position of steward (the highest position a slave could hold) Church also managed to escape the chaos surrounding the Battle of Memphis, TN in 1862. This battle brought the city into Union hands.
Church escaped capture by the Union troops and went on to be a highly respected businessman in 19th century Memphis, TN. Buying land and opening parks for local blacks, Church mixed business with social expansion. Church built the 2,000 seat Church Park and Auditorium.
Robert Church Sr. was to succeed in many businesses during his lifetime. Beginning as a saloon owner Church went on to succeed as an owner of hotels, restaurants and real estate. Shot during the Memphis Riots of 1866, Church refused to be run out of town. Not only did he stay to prosper, he supported the community in myriad ways. Church rode out the yellow fever epidemic of 1878 and purchased a number of real estate tracts at bargain prices. He was the first citizen to buy a $1,000 bond to restore the city's charter after it was reduced to a taxing district of the state by the various yellow fever epidemics.
Church ran unsuccessfully for a position on the Memphis Board of Public Works in 1882. His business ventures never suffered the same reversals as his political ambitions however. Six years before his death Church founded the Solvent Savings Bank and Trust Company. That institution, of which he was also president later became the largest African-American bank in the country.
Fifteen years before his death the Memphis Press-Scimitar proclaimed, "It may be said of Robert Church that his word is as good as his bond. No appeal to him for the aid of any charity or public enterprise for the benefit of Memphis has ever been made in vain. He is for Memphis first, last and all the time."
Listed in the National Register of Historic Places and part of the Beale Street Historic District.
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