The Making of a Black Fortune

America’s first black millionaires were born into slavery — and built wealth alongside political power.

Portrait of a young, well-to-do African American woman, c. 1890. (Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images)

Shomari Wills | Black Fortunes: The Story of the First Six African Americans Who Escaped Slavery and Became Millionaires | Amistad | January 2018 | 6 minutes (1,450 words)

At the turn of the century, Robert Reed Church was 60 years old. He now walked with a cane. His eyes were still fiery and bloodshot, and he remained fear­less and quick-tempered. A decade earlier, in 1889, he had begun to draw up plans for a park and arena for black citizens in Memphis. As their construction neared completion, he wondered how white Memphis would react to his project. His life had been filled with attacks by Confederates, racist police officers, and segregationists for daring to strive as a black person. Many winters earlier, he had been pelted with rocks by racists for having had the audacity as a black man to be the only man in Memphis with a sled. What would they do when he opened a $100,000 arena?

As a young man, he had dealt with white men with his fist and gun. Now, gray and wrinkled, Church decided to exert a skill he had acquired with age: diplomacy. In 1900, a group of ex-Confederate soldiers decided to throw a reunion for Confederate veterans in Memphis. As they struggled to raise $80,000 to build a temporary auditorium in which to hold the affair, they received an unexpected donation of $1,000 from Church, a former slave. “I never gave a cent in my life, so cheerfully or gladly as I gave that check to the veterans’ entertainment fund,” he said afterward. He had learned that goodwill could be bought when he had helped bail out Memphis from bankruptcy. He hoped that $1,000 would be enough to protect his arena from the same resistance as his pool hall, which a white mob had burned down when he was a young entrepreneur.

Church Park and Auditorium opened without incident a few weeks after the Confederate reunion. The 1,200-seat auditorium had two levels, including a balcony. The stage was covered by a drop curtain that had a painting of the burning steamboat Bulletin No. 2, a disaster survived by young Church and his white father and master, Captian Charles B. Church. Behind the curtain was a dark-stained wooden stage with a bandstand. The auditorium sat on a four-acre park ringed by flower gardens with carnival rides, an outdoor theater, gazebos, and orange trees. Peacocks roamed its grounds, spreading their colorful tails to the delight of visitors. He put on concerts with big bands. Church called his park a “resort for colored people.” Since he had built the park without loans or partners, black newspapers began to refer to him as the wealthiest black man in America. Church and the park’s African American visitors were left alone. It seemed that Church’s $1,000 donation bought him and Memphis’ African American population enough room to enjoy the paradise he had built for them.

Robert Reed Church had been pelted with rocks for having the audacity as a black man to be the only man in Memphis with a sled. What would they do when he opened a $100,000 arena?

To segregationist Democrats and white nationalists in Memphis, Church’s overture may have appeared to be political surrender, but in fact, it was exactly the opposite. In 1900, shortly after the opening of his park, Church became a delegate to the Republican National Convention. There he nominated Theodore Roosevelt for vice president and William McKinley for president. He donated $5,000 to the ticket, making him one of the largest contributors to the campaign and winning him favor with the White House. Church’s younger self, an enslaved boy in the Mississippi delta, might have found his current station in life incredible. He was now a millionaire, the richest black man in the country, with a line to the president. Church also became acquainted with Booker T. Washington around 1900, when Washington was starting an organization called the National Negro Business League, a black business network and think tank.

Beyond sharing an interest in black entrepreneurship, Church and Washington didn’t see eye to eye. They “vehemently disagreed on everything.” Church sent his children to boarding school, to college at Oberlin, and donated to black schools. Having been deprived of an education himself, he resented Washington’s focus on “manual labor” instead of “education and ballots.” Their differences aside, the two became allies, and Church invited Washington to be one of the speakers at Church Auditorium. When McKinley was assassinated in 1901 and Roosevelt became president, Church was among the group that encouraged President Roosevelt to invite Booker T. Washington to the White House, as an olive branch to black America. After the death of his friend Frederick Douglass in 1895, Washington had assumed the mantle of the most prominent and influential black leader and activist in the country. On May 2, 1901, Roosevelt, heeding the calls from Washington’s supporters, invited him to dinner at the White House. For men like Church, who had been born into slavery and lived in a segregated South, the symbolism of seeing a black man dine in the White House with the president was awe-inspiring.

Church later wrote the president and asked Roosevelt to give an address to the colored people of Memphis in Church Auditorium. Though not as sensational, the president’s address to an all-black audience in a black-owned auditorium in the South was in many ways as much of a milestone as Washington’s dinner at the White House. Church was now a power broker politically, socially, and economically.

The crowd in Church Auditorium was jubilant in 1902 when President Roosevelt took the stage and stared out at a sea of brown faces. Church sat behind him in a pin­ striped suit and a bowler hat, rocking back and forth in his chair and holding his cane in his hands. A brass band played “Dixie,” followed by “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and then, after speeches from the mayor of Memphis and the governor of Louisiana, Roosevelt took the stage and gave a short speech. Afterward, he stood and waved to the crowd as the band played “It’ll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight.”

Church continued his economic ascent, buying buildings in Beale until, by 1906, he owned most of the district. That year he opened a bank in one of the buildings and named it the Solvent Savings Bank & Trust Co. It was a two-story brick building painted white with a plate-glass window. Church, who had for years lent out rolls of cash from behind the bar and in the back rooms of his saloons, was now officially in the bank business as the first black owner of a bank in Memphis. He deposited $25,000 of his own money, and the bank promised to pay three percent interest on deposits.

For men like Church, who had been born into slavery and lived in a segregated South, the symbolism of seeing a black man dine in the White House with the president was awe-inspiring.

The Panic of 1907 started a run on the banks. The unfortunate timing could have ended Church’s bank; if all his depositors took out their money at once, it would fail. He staved off a run on the bank by exhibiting stacks of money in the plate-glass window, thus assuring his customers that he was solvent and it was safe to keep their money there. In 1908, when a white bank tried to foreclose on the black Baptist church that Ida B. Wells had attended as a young woman, Church and his bank swooped in and paid off the loan, saving it.

Several years later, in 1910, Robert Heberton Terrell, his son-in-law, was nominated to the Washington, D.C., circuit court. When he was confirmed, he became the first black judge in Washington. It was yet another milestone for Church and his family. Risen from bondage, he had become a self-made man, a beloved son of Memphis, a connected political power broker, and the South’s first black millionaire.

Church was an old man by then. His hair was white and thin, and he leaned heavily on his cane to walk. As a young man, he had worked around the clock in his saloon, keeping the lights on until the wee hours of the morning. In his last years, he did the same at his bank. Working beside his son Robert Reed Church Jr., the heir of his dynasty, the elder Robert Church spent his entire day in his office at the bank, writing loans and drumming up deposits. Without fail, as the sun set and people took to Beale Street for a night on the town to see W. C. Handy and others perform a new type of music called the blues, they’d see light in Bob’s office.

In the summer of 1912, Church began having heart trouble and was put on bed rest. Fearing the worse, his friends and family members flocked to Memphis to say goodbye. In his final hours, Booker T. Washington went in to see Church. He was the last person to see him alive. In August 1912, Church died of a heart attack. He left behind a wife and five children and an estate worth over a million dollars.

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From Black Fortunes: The Story of the First Six African Americans Who Escaped Slavery and Became Millionaires by Shomari Wills. Copyright © 2018 by Shomari Wills. Reprinted by permission of Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.