Memphis Black history: Millionaire Robert Church rebuilds Memphis after the Yellow Fever epidemic

Memphis had a pretty rough time after the Civil War. Following the Memphis Riots of 1866, the Yellow Fever epidemics of the 1870s forever changed the face of the city.

How did Memphis begin to grow again? One of the most important figures for the city at the time was Robert R. Church Sr., who was one of the first Black millionaires in the United States. He used his wealth to help rebuild Memphis.

Church was born as a slave in Holly Springs, Mississippi in 1839. His mother was a slave, and his father was a white steamship owner from Virginia. Robert’s mother died when he was 12, and his father began taking him on steamship trips up and down the Mississippi River to and from New Orleans.

Robert served as a cabin boy and a steward. While he was on the steamboat, he tried to pick up all of the business terminology that he could and make business contacts. His father paid him a wage, and he saved his money.

When Robert was 23 and still a slave, he had saved up enough money to purchase a bar which he later traded for a billiards room and saloon. At this point, Union soldiers had overtaken Memphis, so as fugitive slaves flocked to the city they became Robert’s faithful customers.

His success did not go unnoticed. During the Memphis Riots on 1866, angry white Memphians shot Roberts in his saloon. He survived the ordeal and continued to further his vision for Memphis.

Then came the Yellow Fever epidemics. Robert resided both inside and outside of the city during the 1870s. As property values tanked, Robert was there to buy up lots and continue to invest in Memphis. When Tennessee took away Memphis’ city charter, Robert was the first citizen to purchase a $1,000 bond to earn it back.

Church built a public park with a 2,000-seat auditorium and a playground for Memphis’ Black citizens. W.C. Handy was even the park orchestra leader!

Church sponsored political rallies, graduation ceremonies and a free Thanksgiving meal every year for Black Memphians in need. In 1906, he created the Solvent Savings Bank, the first Black-owned and operated bank in Memphis.

Church stuck it out. He dedicated his life to the city that he loved even when times got difficult. When he had the privilege to run away, he stayed.

African-American history is Memphis history and without Church, Memphis might look very different today.

Read more articles by Morgan Beckford.

Morgan Beckford is a long-time Memphian, performing musician and educator. Currently, she serves as the coordinator of in-school partnerships for the Memphis Music Initiative and summer conservatory director for Opera Memphis.