Elizabeth Gritter: Church Family Led Racial Advances

Roundup: Historians' Take

Elizabeth Gritter teaches U.S. history at Middle Tennessee State University, and her book-in-progress examines Robert R. Church Jr. and black political mobilization in Memphis. She also is working on a documentary film, titled “River of Hope,” on this topic.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the death of Robert R. Church Sr., reportedly America’s first black millionaire, and the national political start of his son Robert R. Church Jr., who became the country’s most prominent black Republican in the 1920s. These black Tennesseans, based in Memphis, made great strides for racial advancement.

Born in Mississippi to a white slaveholder and his Malay slave, Church Sr. worked as a steward on his father’s steamboats on the Mississippi River from Memphis to New Orleans. During the Battle of Memphis on June 6, 1862, a Federal fleet captured the steamboat Victoria, but Church escaped and stayed in Union-occupied Memphis.

After the war, Church Sr. opened a saloon along Beale Street. Along with the profits from his first wife, Louisa, who ran a hair salon, he amassed a business fortune that made him a millionaire....

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