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The Black Man Who Saved Memphis: Robert R. Church

Dr. L. LaSimba M. Gray Jr., Special to The New Tri-State Defender | 7/26/2019, 6 a.m.
With a 7 p.m. parade down Beale Street to Church Park, Memphis celebrated the birth of Robert Reid Church Sr. ...
An editorial in the Evening Scimitar in 1899 put Church’s legacy in this context: “It may be said of Robert R. Church that his word is as good as his bond. No appeal to him for the aid of charity or public enterprise for the benefit of Memphis has ever been in vain. He is for Memphis first, last and all the time...”

With a 7 p.m. parade down Beale Street to Church Park, Memphis celebrated the birth of Robert Reid Church Sr. as a part of the Memphis Bicentennial.

Mayor Jim Strickland issued a proclamation that was received by Ron Walters, general manager of WREG TV and a local historian. Mini speeches took place and good fellowship abounded.

One hundred eighty years ago, on June 18th in Holly Springs, Miss., Robert R. Church was born to a slave girl named Emmeline and Captain Charles B. Church. Owner and operator of two of the most patronized steamboats on the Mississippi River, Church transported cargo and passengers between Memphis and New Orleans.

In 1851, Emmeline died and Robert Church was sent to live with his father on the Mississippi River. Emmeline had secured Capt. Church’s pledge that her son Robert would never be sold to another slave owner.

Sending Robert to his father was his intended passport to the North and the best education money could buy. Church bonded with his son, deciding to raise him and teach him the steamboat business.

From errand boy to steward, Robert served as an assistant to his father in many capacities, learning the principles of business, with an emphasis on bookkeeping. Capt. Church taught Robert to read and count receipts in French. A fast learner, Robert listened intently to his father’s instructions.

“Be considerate of others but always demand respect for self,” admonished Captain Church to his son. “Never allow anybody to call you a nigger.”

This hands-on education and the 11-year apprenticeship thoroughly prepared Robert for the tumultuous life he would face in the fast-growing river town of Memphis and the bustling street called Beale.

On June 6, 1862, the Civil War registered in Memphis as the Federal Fleet arrived in the Memphis Harbor with cannons blasting. Robert Church was serving as steward of the Victoria. When federal troops took over the Victoria, Robert was forced to make a decision: Be killed or be captured and become a prisoner of war. Robert chose to jump into the river and swim to the muddy banks of Memphis.

With the savings from his work on the river, Robert entered business in Memphis. His first investments were in real estate and soon he expanded to hotels, pool halls, brothels, saloons and, ultimately, a bank.

Soon after the Civil War, Memphis was consumed by the Yellow Fever epidemic and the racial tensions that led to violence, death and destruction. Four days after the announcement that the plague was present in Memphis, 25,000 people fled the city. Robert Church acquired many abandoned properties, expanding on his real estate holdings. He could have left in a panic, choosing instead to contribute generously to helping Memphis recover.

African Americans remained in Memphis and by 1878 they were 70 percent of the population. African Americans constituted an overwhelming majority of the 3,000 nurses left to take care of the stricken. The entire workforce assigned by city officials to clean up the streets, bury the dead, clean up the dumps, drain the bayous, burn contaminated rags and spread lime over the vacant lots were African Americans. These heroic efforts were performed with great risk in the true sense of altruism.