Godfather of Beale Street

If Beale Street could talk, it would tell stories about Robert Reed Church.  He once owned virtually all the property in the Beale Street District, the heart of black Memphis.  How Robert achieved that remarkable feat is an American tale of grit, stubborn determination and luck. 

Robert Reed Church was born on 1839 to a slave woman named Emmeline.  His father was a white man, Captain Charles Church, who owned several Mississippi steamboats. The Captain promised Emmeline that Robert would be sent to school and freed from slavery.  Instead, after Emmeline died, Captain Church put his twelve-year-old son to work on one of his steam boats. 

In 1861, when Robert was about 22 years old, Captain Church’s steamboats were commandeered by the Confederate navy. Robert and the other slaves were forced to continue working on the boats. Robert’s luck changed, in June 1862, during the Battle of Memphis, when his ship was attacked by the Union navy. As the ship caught fire, Robert jumped overboard to freedom. 

In the spring, of 1866, he spotted another opportunity. Post-war Memphis was occupied by Union troops, most of whom were former slaves.  Robert applied for a business license to open a billiard hall to provide entertainment to the troops. When the city rejected his application, he opened the business anyway. 

Soon after, two white police officers arrested him for violating a city ordinance by operating a business without a license. Robert hired a clever lawyer who successfully argued that the federal Civil Rights Act of 1866, enacted a few days before his trial began, had been violated because Robert was denied a business license solely due to his skin color. The charges were dropped.

Confederates in Memphis were outraged by the court’s decision. They were already angry about the Union occupation of their city, particularly the fact that the occupation troops were black soldiers. They saw the court’s decision as another blow against the South by the Radical Republicans in Congress.  

Within hours of the court’s decision, a riot consumed Memphis as white police officers and angry Confederates attacked the black Union soldiers, northern carpetbaggers and any black civilian they found.  Robert’s billiard hall was targeted and he was beaten, shot and left for dead as the place was torched.  

Miraculously, Robert lived and appeared as the star witness at a Congressional inquiry in Memphis looking into the cause of the riot.  The federal investigators concluded there were insufficient grounds for federal charges against the rioters, despite the fact that black homes, businesses, and schools were destroyed.  None of the white police officers were prosecuted for their role in the riot. After the federal investigation fizzled, many black people decided their good health depended on leaving Memphis.  Many of them sold their homes and businesses to Robert as they left town.  He refused to leave and by 1870, he had rebuilt his billiard hall and added a barbershop and saloon. He encouraged other businesses to open as part of his redevelopment of the Beale Street District.

In 1877, President Rutherford B. Hayes ended Reconstruction and the Union occupation, allowing ex-Confederates to return to power across the south, but again Robert’s luck held.  In 1879, Robert shocked the white leaders of Memphis when he became the first businessman to buy the city’s new municipal bonds.  His investment convinced others to step up to rebuild Memphis after years of population decline and economic stagnation.

Robert never had a chance at an education, but he ensured that his children became college graduates. When he died in 1912, Robert left an estate worth more than $1 million and he gave us the Beale Street entertainment district.

Robert Reed Church survived shipwrecks, riots, beatings and the failure of several businesses. His story is one of several told in Black Fortunes, by Shomari Wills (2018).  The book was such a page-turner that I read the whole thing over one weekend.

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