On Nov. 19, 1902, the president of the United States paid an unprecedented visit to what was once celebrated as the “the Main Street of Negro America” — Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee. In a park, amid bunting and American flags, Theodore Roosevelt addressed a crowd of more than 10,000, including the governors of Tennessee and Mississippi. A local brass band serenaded Roosevelt with “Dixie” and “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
It was a big day for Memphis and for Black America, and a triumph for one of the most remarkable figures in U.S. history: Robert Church, a man who had been born a slave and risen to become the South’s first African-American millionaire and host to the president.
Born in Mississippi in 1839, Church was the mixed-race offspring of a white steamboat captain and an enslaved Black seamstress. His father never formally recognized their relationship, but he was affectionate and instilled in his son a fierce pride and inner toughness. “Don’t let anyone call you a nigger,” he told the boy. Church’s mother died when he was 12, and his father put him to work as a dishwasher, cook and steward on the steamships, where he studied the rich white planters, gamblers and merchants — including their desires and tells — on board.
When Union army forces captured the steamer on which Church was aboard in 1862, the 23-year-old jumped in the river and swam ashore, determined to make his own way in the world, even if it meant starting as a fugitive slave. He ended up in Memphis, where, as Preston Lauterbach chronicles in Beale Street Dynasty: Sex, Song and the Struggle for the Soul of Memphis, he would embark on a journey that would make him one of the South’s most successful — and controversial — businessmen.
TWO WEEKS AFTER HIS COURTROOM VICTORY, CHURCH WAS SHOT IN THE BACK OF THE HEAD.…
In time, Church would open a saloon that served nonwhites, followed by a hotel, a restaurant, a brothel, a theater, an auditorium and his own real estate business. But the path there was anything but smooth. Shortly after he opened the town’s first Black-owned pool hall in 1865, he was arrested and sent to court, where he won a landmark civil rights decision upholding a Black man’s right to obtain such a commercial license. “Church had taken his first stand for equality, not to access the ballot box or the classroom,” writes Lauterbach, “but to freely promote vice.”
Two weeks after his courtroom victory, Church was shot in the back of the head during the Memphis race riots of 1866 by policemen looting his whiskey, cigars and till — one of three gunshot wounds that Church would survive in his life. Like other Black Tennesseans, he would also live in the shadow of racism, Jim Crow and lynchings — and watch as Memphis succumbed to a series of yellow fever epidemics in the 1870s that shrank the population from 50,000 to 20,000. Wealthy Memphians abandoned the city in droves, and Church had both the looks — straight hair and light skin — and the means to join them.
Instead he stayed. When the city offered up bonds to fund its revival, Church stepped forward and bought the first one, helping restore the shaky confidence of other investors. In the next five years, he would scoop up nine properties in a distressed market and build a real estate empire in the city’s African-American waterfront section known as Beale Street. Some of his businesses may have been so-called dens of iniquity, but they also allowed nonwhites to enjoy the same dining and other urban leisure activities that whites enjoyed. A diligent manager who was well liked by both the white and Black communities, Church eventually became known as the “Boss of Beale Street” — not to mention a millionaire in an era when the average Southern Black earned a few dollars per week.
It is hard to overstate Church’s impact on Memphis and the city’s Black community. In 1900, when Blacks made up nearly half of Memphis’ population but were not welcome in its public parks, Church invested $100,000 in a 6-acre property that he filled with gardens, picnic grounds, a bandstand, peacocks and a 2,000-seat auditorium that welcomed the U.S. president two years later, helping ignite a cultural awakening that would transform Beale Street into one of America’s great music and arts centers.
Still, at a time when Southern Blacks were being hanged for alleged offenses against white women, as Lauterbach points out, Church was earning a fortune, in part, from whorehouses that exploited white women, and his legacy would suffer as a result. His family was exiled from Memphis in the mid-20th century, and his role in its rise erased from the city’s narrative, until he was later embraced as a major figure in the wake of the civil rights movement. “Church was complex in a true sense in that, yes, he made money in whorehouses and saloons,” says Lauterbach, “but at the same time he was really a community builder.”