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Saturday, December 15, 2012

Robert R. Church

Born: 1839

Died: 1912

Robert R. Church, Sr. 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 in 1862. This battle brought the city into Union hands.

Church escaped capture by the Union troups and went on to be a highly respected businessman in 19th century Memphis. 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 race 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 twice 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 amibitions however. Six years before his death Church founded the Solvent Savings Bank and Trust Company. That institution, of which he was also president went on to become 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."

Robert R. Church Jr.

Born: 1885

Died: 1952

Here is the story of Robert R. Church, Jr. in the words of his daughter Roberta:

Robert R. Church, Jr., a political leader of color in Memphis and the nation, was born on October 26, 1885, at the family home, 384 South Lauderdale Street, in Memphis. He was one of the two children of Robert R. and Anna (Wright) Church. His sister was Annette E. Church. He was educated at Mrs. Julia Hooks's kindergarten, by private tutors, and at parochial schools in Memphis. Further education was obtained at Morgan Park Military Academy, Morgan Park,Illinois, and Berlin and the Parkard School of Business, New York.

He completed his education by spending two years learning banking on Wall Street.

Robert Church, Jr., returned to Memphis, where he became the manager of Church's Park and Auditorium. He later became cashier of the Solvent Savings Bank and Trust Company, founded by his father, succeeding him as president after his death. Within a few years, he resigned this position to manage the family's extensive real estate holdings. On July 26,1911, Robert Church, Jr., married Sara P. Johnson of Washington, D. C., in that city. They became the parents of one child, Sara Roberta

In 1916, Robert Church, Jr., founded and financed the Lincoln League in Memphis, which was established to organize the masses of black citizens to register and vote. It was his conviction that the ballot was the medium through which citizens of color could obtain civil rights. The Lincoln League organized voter registration drives, voting schools, and paid poll taxes for voters. Within a few months, the League had registered 10,000 voters. A Lincoln League Ticket was entered in the 1916 election, which included a black candidate for the Congress. The ticket lost, but it established the Lincoln League as a viable and respected political force in Memphis; the League later expanded into a statewide and national organization.

In 1917, Church organized the Memphis Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the first branch in Tennessee. In 1919, he was elected to the national board of directors for the NAACP, representing fourteen southern states.

There were two factions of the Republican party in Memphis during Church's lifetime: one labeled by the daily press as the "Lily-White" (all white) wing of the party, and the other led by Church and called by the daily newspaper the "Black and Tans" (Negro and white). Robert Church, Jr., was a delegate from Memphis to eight successive Republican National Conventions from 1912-1940, having to battle each time with the white faction opposed to black participation in the party. Since Church's organization supplied the votes which carried the Republicans to victory in Memphis and Shelby County, he, as leader, was consulted by national party officials about federal patronage. Because the political climate in the South during his lifetime had not reached the point where he could recommend qualified black candidates for U. S. Postmaster, federal judge, U. S. Attorney, etc., he very carefully selected and recommended for those positions white candidates whom he thought were qualified men and who would perform their duties fairly and justly in the best interests of all segments of the population. He was requested frequently to recommend individuals for federal jobs in other southern states. He was consulted about political strategy by Republican Presidents and other high party officials so often that Time magazine referred to Church as the "roving dictator of the Lincoln Belt."

In the 1920's, when Robert Church, Jr., was at the height of his political influence, E. H. Crump, the Memphis Democratic leader, had not reached his political zenith. Church and Crump had totally disparate political philosophies and maintained autonomous political organizations. When it became necessary to discuss political procedures with the city administration, such as primary or general elections, county conventions, etc., Church was represented by attorneys from his group, usually Josiah T. Settle, Jr., a Negro, and George Klepper and Baily Walsh, both of whom were white. Since it was not possible for a Republican to be elected mayor of Memphis, Church occasionally supported Democratic candidates he thought would be fair to Negroes, such as Watkins Overton, a family friend.

In 1940, when it appeared that Wendell Wilkie, the Republican candidate for President, might defeat incumbent President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in order to prevent Church's return to power (should the Republicans win the election), the city administration moved to destroy Church's political base by seizing his real estate holdings, allegedly for back taxes. At the same time, the city administration moved against two prominent Church associates: Dr. J. B. Martin, owner of the South Memphis Drug Store on south Florida Street, and Elmer Atkinson, proprietor of a cafe on Beale Street. City policemen, stationed at the front entrances of the men's establishments, searched all customers who entered, causing Martin and Atkinson to sustain tremendous financial losses. Atkinson had to close his cafe. Martin and Atkinson moved to Chicago, and Church established himself in Washington, D. C. Church Park and Auditorium was renamed "Beale Avenue Auditorium," and the family home was burned, ostensibly to test some of the City's new fire-fighting equipment.

At the invitation of his friend, A. Philip Randolph, the distinguished Negro labor leader, Church accepted membership on the board of directors of the National Council For A Permanent Fair Employment Practices Committee (now known as Equal Employment Opportunity) and worked tirelessly for the enactment of such legislation. In 1944, he organized and was elected chairman of the Republican American Committee, a group of 200 Negro Republican leaders from thirty-two states, who united to pressure Republican senators and congressmen to enact fair employment and other civil rights' legislation.

Church visited Memphis in 1952, after attending the Republican State Convention in Nashville, to promote General Dwight D. Eisenhower as the Republican candidate for President. He was talking Republican politics when he died of a fatal heart attack on April 17, 1952.

Roberta Church and Ronald Walter

Source: Internet