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Robert Reed Church

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Robert Reed Church

Robert Reed Church was one of the most influential African Americans of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, but he was also one of the most influential Memphians in the history of the city. He was the first African American millionaire (it is widely believed that at his death his net worth was closer to that of $750,000) in the south and a major player in the development of Memphis. His families’ legacy extends to generations today, and his impact has forever shaped Memphis.
Church was born into a white, very wealthy family to a white father, Charles B. Church, in Holy Springs, Mississippi in 1839. His father was a wealthy steamboat owner who, while affectionately loved his son, never formally recognized him as such. His mother, Emmeline, was of mixed race and sources are not clear if she was a slave or not. Charles Church, instead of bringing him into the family business, relegated him to the highest jobs in the steamboat industry that an African American could hold. These jobs such as dishwasher and steward put him in a weird quasi class, which was neither black nor white. During these jobs, he would pick up much business acumen and contacts, which he would use in the future to build up his own businesses. He would go on to work in these positions for a few years until the Union army captured one of the steamboats and Church was dropped off in Memphis. While he never received any formal training or education from his father, he did inherit some money, and with little business savvy, turned that money into profitable ventures. By the end of 1885, he owned more than one establishment and began collecting rent on many of his properties. In 1886, the infamous race riots of Memphis occurred, and Robert was shot by a white mob and left for dead in his own salon. He survived barely, and later testified against the police at the trials for the...

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