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 »