Robert Reed Church was born in Holly Springs, Mississippi to an interracial union. His father, Charles B. Church, was a Steamboat Captain. His mother, Emmeline, was an enslaved mistress.
In 1865, Robert and his wife Louisa Church, a former slave, settled in Memphis–where they both became entrepreneurs. Louisa opened up a string of Beauty Parlors, and Robert acquired a saloon.
During the Memphis Race Riot f 1866, a white mob attacked Church’s saloon, shot him and left him for dead. Church survived, and vowed to stay in Memphis, despite the racism.
In 1892, he ran for office for a position on the Memphis Board of Public Works, to press for more recreational facilities for local Blacks. Unfortunately, he campaigned unsuccesfuly.
However, in 1899 he used his own money to purchase a tract of land on Beale street, where he built Church Park & Auditorium. It was the first major recreational center in the nation owned by an African American. The Auditorium hosted big names from all over the Nation such as: Booker T. Washington, James Weldon Johnson and President Theodore Roosevelt spoke to 10,000 people at the Auditorium and surrounding grounds.
Throughout his time in Memphis, Church gave liberally to local schools, social an civic organizations and churches–becoming the most prominent philanthropist in the city.
The Auditorium was demolished in 1921, and a new one was built that lasted until the 1970’s. Church Park still remains on Beale Street, and highlights the life of the Church Family.
If in Memphis, don’t forget to check it out!