How does one explain a Frederick Douglass, a Booker T. Washington, a George Washington Carver? The fact that some blacks were permitted to flourish in a society otherwise committed to racial oppression makes the oppression seem all the crueler, because it reveals how truly selective it was. I suppose a black man in the 1880s might look upon a Frederick Douglass and think, “That could be me!” But I suspect he might be equally likely to say to his white oppressors, “Why are you making my life a living hell but letting that guy off the hook?”
To the Douglasses, Washingtons, and Carvers can be added Robert Reed Church (1839–1912), a Memphis businessman and banker who became the first black millionaire in the South. Robert Church was born a slave in 1839, the son of his white owner and a mixed-race mother. In 1855, Church and his father survived the sinking of the Bulletin no. 2, and seven years later the young man had to swim for his life in the Mississippi River at Memphis, reaching the riverbank as Federal warships overpowered a Confederate flotilla. In 1865, Church opened a saloon in Memphis, despite being denied a permit. The next year, he was shot in the neck during a race riot and left for dead. Four years later, he opened a brothel in downtown Memphis, on Second and Gayoso—and thus his rise began. He acquired more property during the yellow-fever epidemic of 1878—he had the means by then to send his two children out of the city to New York City by train—and by 1885 he had made his fortune. He took his family on a European tour in 1889 and visited the world’s fair in Chicago in 1893. Around that time he received at his Memphis home Frederick Douglass himself. “A Mr. Robert R. Church owns one of the finest hotels in Memphis,” a Boston newspaper reported in 1889. “Nor is this all. In the registry of deeds his name is on the books as the lawful owner of 60 brick and wooden houses. His note is good for at least $250,000.”
Robert Church and his son, Robert Jr., are the nominal subjects of Beale Street Dynasty: Sex, Song, and the Struggle for the Soul of Memphis, a 2015 book written by Preston Lauterbach. But this is not so much a history of the Churches as it is an on-the-ground history of the city between the 1860s and the 1930s, organized around the often rambunctious dealings—political, business, artistic—of a half dozen prominent Memphians, the Churches being the most central, and another half dozen or so lesser lights.
Much of Lauterbach’s story, which draws copiously from newspapers of the time, involves the disgraceful, the disreputable, and the dishonorable. He opens with the race riot of 1866, which, in the author’s telling, was fomented as much by the animosity between the black soldiers garrisoned at Fort Pickering and the white city police force as by the liquor that both sides liberally consumed. The riot, which made plain the unwillingness of the federal government to protect the newly freed, led blacks in Memphis to close ranks and “gravitate to their own prominent citizens,” particularly Robert Church. Over the next three hundred or so pages, Lauterbach relates the rise of the Churches and that of Beale Street, the two being of a piece. Along the way, other Memphians—Ida B. Wells, W. C. Handy, E. H. Crump, and George W. Lee being the best known—take centerstage, with the Churches disappearing from the narrative for pages at a time. That disappearing act caught this reader by surprise. The “prologue” states that the book will be about the Churches’ rise to fortune and influence. It is—but that’s only one of its subjects.
Lauterbach’s history, which was published by Norton, is as hyperlocal a one I’ve read. A plenitude of ordinary Memphians of yore slip in and out of the author’s brisk narrative. We meet policeman David Roach, who, revolted by the thought of miscegenation, invaded brothels and homes where black men and white women “knotted up” (Lauterbach’s pitch-perfect phrase); it was Roach who, in the race riot of 1866, shot Robert Church in the neck. We meet Mary Grady, who owned a dance hall. We meet police chief Ben Garrett, who, in an investigation of police misconduct, felt free to let slip that his officers were “sometimes” sober. We meet City Recorder John C. Creighton, who publicly exhorted his fellow white citizens to “kill and drive” every black from the city. We meet Jackson Goodell, a black drayman who was beaten by two policemen. We meet a C. M. Cooley, a Lavinia Goodell (Jackson’s wife), a Lucy Taylor, a Harriet Armour, a “constable” named O’Hearn, a Joe Clouston (a mulatto barber), an Adam Lock, a Rachel Hatcher, and an Austin Cotton—and all of those just in chapter 2.
A handful of characters whom I doubt appear in any other history of the city receive several pages. Three at random are James Kinnane, who ran his own entertainment district on the north side of town and who, one newspaper insinuated, directed his black clientele to support Crump’s opponent in the 1909 mayoral election; Frank Liberto, who as a teenager delivered meals to the “girls” who worked in the brothels and who later ran an inn on Beale Street; and David Park “Pappy” Hadden, a businessman and public official who in the 1870s brought Mardi Gras to the city and who, as police court judge, closed a number of brothels. Actually, I’m wrong about Hadden not appearing in any other history: he is mentioned in a 2013 history of Orange Mound by Charles Williams. But still. One can marvel at the author’s resolve to document by name a large cast of workaday Memphians who may not be historically significant but who made Memphis the rowdy and spirited place it was at the time.
Indeed, Lauterbach opens up a Memphis that sometimes sounds like the stuff of pulp fiction and film noir:
Nello Grandi and his brother Olento arrived on Beale before 1910, tall Nello becoming Big Grandi and diminutive Olento, Little Grandi. Big Grandi worked with Vigelio “Pee Wee” Maffei in one of the little legend’s saloons. This joint sat practically on the banks of the Mississippi, and here Big Grandi saw strapping Negro roustabouts with their hundred-dollar pay strolling straight down a cotton steamer gangplank right into Pee Wee’s, which promptly soaked them for every cent.
In a similar vein, of one of James Kinnane’s hired hands Lauterbach writes, “Tick Houston was a renaissance man of sorts, managing under one roof a con game, a colored vaudeville theater, and a pimp hive.”
One of the fascinating things we learn from this enjoyable book is that brothels were legal and regulated in Memphis until 1940—long after the famous Storyville area of New Orleans was shut down in 1917. In time, the brothels became concentrated around Beale Street. A tantalized William Faulkner came poking around them in the early 1920s. But when propositioned, he begged off. “No thank you, ma’am. I’m on my vacation.”
That a society committed to white supremacy made room for a Robert Church Sr. is impossible to explain. As Lauterbach writes, “In the decades following the Civil War, black men were lynched for two reasons down South: for daring to compete economically with white men and for soiling the honor of white women. Bob Church was doing both, and with tacit license and open appreciation.”
There’s virtually nothing left of the Church legacy in Memphis today, other than a small park named in honor of Robert Sr. The Churches deserve better. As Lauterbach makes clear, Robert Reed Church was devoted to Memphis and is no small reason why the city exists today. With the struggling tax district on the brink of extinction after the yellow-fever epidemic, it was Church who purchased the first bond issued to pay off the city’s old debt. As a newspaper reported, “With this example before them, capitalists of the Caucasian race could not be shy, and the whole of the bonds was placed.”