A life of grit, gut-instinct and glory

In honor of Black History Month, we are honoring key members of the African American community who have made a lasting impact on the financial industry. Robert Reed Church led an extraordinary life of grit, gut-instinct and ultimately glory. Son of a slave and a river boat captain, Church rose to such social and financial prominence that he has continued to wield influence long after his death 109 years ago. While working as a porter, he survived both a shipwreck and capture by Union soldiers during the Civil War. Dropped off by them in Memphis, he began building his fortune by purchasing and successfully managing a saloon. During the Memphis Race Riot, he was shot and left for dead outside his own establishment while his assailants ransacked the place – smashing bottles, breaking furniture and stealing cash and merchandise. He not only survived the assault, he vowed to rebuild in the same spot and, from there he launched a career that made him a millionaire and transformed the city he loved. He stayed in Memphis when nearly everyone else fled the city during a Yellow Fever epidemic, then he purchased the property they left behind. Among his holdings was a tract of land along Beale Street on which he built a large auditorium that later hosted world-famous entertainers and several U.S. presidents. His development also included property he had landscaped into a park with a playground. Following that epidemic, Memphis lost the majority of its tax base, so Church stepped up and became the first citizen to buy a bond for one thousand dollars to restore the City Charter. He helped found the first black-owned and operated bank in Memphis and avoided a run on it during the 1907 Panic by placing bags of money in its windows with signs assuring depositors that he had adequate reserves. He built a mansion that remained in his family until 1953 when it… | Read More »

A Pleasant capitalist and fearless activist

In honor of Black History Month, we are honoring key members of the African American community who have made a lasting impact on the financial industry. An astute investor and talented chef, Mary Ellen Pleasant did not mince words. Asked to list her profession in the 1890 census, Pleasant wrote “Capitalist”, both an accurate and lofty label for the former slave. She famously received a letter from a pastor in which he addressed her as “Mammy Pleasant,” a nickname she despised. “I wrote back to him on his own paper that my name was Mrs. Mary E. Pleasant. I wouldn’t waste any of my paper on him,” she reportedly said. Born into slavery and then sold as an indentured servant, Pleasant and her eventual business partner amassed a fortune of more than $30 million, which she used to help fund the abolitionist movement. In fact, she wrote and initialed a note found in abolitionist John Brown’s pocket after he was hanged for murder and treason. She also had given him $30,000 for the cause and promised to send more as needed. Pleasant began building her fortune by taking advantage of her combined talents for catering and self-education. She opened her own restaurant in San Francisco and eventually bought several restaurants, boarding houses and laundries all with the goal of employing freed slaves. An important conductor on the Underground Railway, Pleasant earned the title “Black City Hall”, because she so regularly granted start-up funds and found jobs for San Francisco’s African American population. Working with a white man named Thomas Bell, Pleasant also invested in silver and together they became extremely successful. Though she initially passed as a white woman, Pleasant updated her race affiliation on the census after the Civil War, saying “I’d rather be a corpse than a coward.” In the late 1860s, she successfully sued two railway companies in San Francisco for discrimination, which led to San Francisco… | Read More »