Robert Church

Robert Church PHOTO: Republican Party of Shelby County


Robert Church Sr. was born a slave but by the end of his life had become the South’s wealthiest African-American man.

Like Ida B. Wells and E.H. Crump, Church was born in Holly Springs, Mississippi, and migrated to Memphis. He bought his first piece of property in 1862. After the Civil War he continued buying and renting small apartments, houses, a billiard hall, restaurant and hotel. He was shot and injured during the Memphis Race Riot of 1866, but he refused to leave.  After the yellow fever epidemic of 1878 resulted in vacant properties and homes across the city, Church continued to increase his holdings.

Robert Church, W.C. Handy and George Lee
PHOTO: Memphis/Shelby County Room

In 1899, a time when black citizens weren’t allowed to go into most white theaters and parks, Church opened “Church’s Park and Auditorium.” This became the cultural center for Memphis’ African-American community.

Among the people who appeared at Church’s Park and Auditorium were President Theodore Roosevelt, Booker T. Washington and W. C. Handy, the “Father of the Blues.”

An advertisement for Church’s billiard hall

A few years later Church was one of several black leaders who founded the Solvent Savings Bank and Trust Co., Memphis’ first black owned bank.