he hit song Tuxedo Junction was composed by Erskine Hawkins in 1939 and co-written with Buddy Feyne. When Buddy Feyne was commissioned to compete for the lyrics of the song, he asked Hawkins what the title referred to. In Feyn’s words, Erskine Hawkins replied that it was a “a performance venue whistle stop” on the Chittlin’ Circuit in Birmingham Alabama. According to www.800alabama.com, the official travel and tourism site for the state of Alabama,
the corner of Ensley Avenue and 19th Street in the Ensley area of west Birmingham was once home to the famed Tuxedo Junction, the heart of social life for the black populations of Birmingham and the surrounding areas…a booming center for black nightlife in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s…”Erskine Hawkin’s Tuxedo Junction was covered by the Glen Miller Orchestra in 1940. It became one of the most popular songs of World II and did much to popularize the notion of a so called Chittlin’ Circuit among the American public.
ther “Chittlin’ Circuit” venues along the Eastern coast and southern byways included Washington DC’s Howard Theatre and Lincoln Theatre, Richmond’s Hippodrome Theatre, the Royal Peacock in Atlanta, the Marsalis Mansion in New Orleans, and the Victory Grill in Austin. While these landmark venues were founded between 1910 and 1945, one came before them.
he story of Church Park and Auditorium began on a small island in the Indian Ocean during the early 1800s. A slave ship pulled into the port of Madagascar or perhaps a Malaysian island on its voyage to America. Its cargo holds laden with African slaves, yet another was added, a young girl named Lucy. She was a curious sight, wearing a coral necklace laced with gold and half-moon earrings. Lucy was sold to a Virginia planter circa 1805. The planter came upon hard times and was forced to sell Lucy and her daughter Emmeline to a plantation owner in Holly Springs, Mississippi around 1825. According to the plantation owner’s grandson, neither mother nor daughter was treated as a slave. Emmeline later came into the possession of a white businessman, Charles B Church, who owned Mississippi River steamboats. Emmeline gave birth to Robert Reed Church in 1839.
Robert Reed Church, Sr.
(1839 – 1912)
Photo Credit: www.societyofentrepreneurs.com/church.asp
hen Emmeline died in 1851, Robert R Church began working for his father. Though still a slave, the young Church served an apprenticeship, of sorts, with his father and slave master, starting out as a cabin boy and climbing the “ship’s ladder” to the positon of Steward. Charles Church’s Steamship plied the waters of the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Memphis. Robert Church’s time aboard ship allowed him to experience a virtual hospitality industry classroom, affording a panoramic view of entrepreneurship, service and the twin cultures of New Orleans and Memphis.
he Battle of Memphis in 1862 was another turning point in the life of Robert R. Church. He survived the “fog of war” when Federal Troops overran Memphis, became a free man, then settled permanently in the city. Church then married Louisa Ayers, herself a former slave. Both he and his wife were entrepreneurs. Robert Church’s first venture was a saloon, his wife’s a hair salon. The success of these ventures, especially Louisa Church’s hair salon, enabled Robert Church to acquire real estate.
During the “Memphis Race Riots of 1866,” a mob invaded Church’s saloon and shot him in the head. He survived, but suffered recurring headaches for the remainder of his life. Lesser men would have given up and left town, but Robert R. Church Sr. was not deterred. In another life altering event in 1878, Robert R Church watched with dismay while Memphis suffered a catastrophic epidemic of Yellow Fever. Many fled the city and sold their real estate holdings at major discounts. Church stayed on, accumulating a substantial investment in real estate properties. The city, facing financial peril, issued $1,000 bonds in order to regain solvency. Church purchased the 1st bond.
Judge Robert H Terrell, 1923
New York Public Library
Mary Church, Circa early 1900s
Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons
n November 3rd, 1897, Robert Terrell wrote a letter from his Washington DC Law Office to his Father-in-Law, Robert R Church, Sr. in Memphis, TN. In the first sentence he says “I have succeeded in renting your house to Paul Laurence Dunbar whom Mrs. Church and you know.” He then asked for permission to make repairs that were requested by Church’s new tenant. The tenant, of course, was one of the most celebrated African American Poets in American history. Dunbar had recently returned from a successful poetry reading tour of England and was just beginning to garner national and international acclaim. Before embarking on his triumphant London tour, he had finally managed to meet his “pen pal” in person, the nationally renowned writer Alice Ruth Moore. She was a New Orleans, LA native and graduate of Straight University (now Dillard University) and Cornell University (MA). They were married the following year. Robert Terrell, the 1st African American Municipal Judge in DC, and Mary Church Terrell, a Founding member of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909, lived next door, within walking distance of the emerging “U Street Corridor” and historic Howard University. One can imagine that both “Power Couples” eagerly encouraged political leaders, musicians and entertainers to drop in and visit Robert R Church Sr. and his Church Park and Auditorium in Memphis when visiting the south.
n 1899, Robert Church filled a major void in the lives of African Americans in Memphis by purchasing six acres of land on Beale Street and building the Church Park and Auditorium. Historians note that African Americans in Memphis had few opportunities for recreational activities during this period. In fact, African Americans had virtually no access to amusement parks in America until the enactment of the Civil rights bill in 1963. In 1900, Church Park and Auditorium featured a swimming pool, recreational equipment and a concert class venue that became one of the most celebrated entertainment venues in the South as well as the United States. Only a few other African American amusement parks would come along in later years such as Chicago’s Joyland Park in 1923, Fairview Park in Western Pennsylvania in the 1930s and Lincoln Beach of New Orleans in 1939. The former were owned by Chicago African American businessmen and Pennsylvania African American Churches respectively, while the latter, in a bit of “post Katrina” irony, was operated by the City of New Orleans on land owned by the New Orleans Levee Board in the city’s 9th Ward.
true renaissance man, Robert Church, Sr. also founded the Solvent Savings Bank & Trust Company in 1908. One of their first loans was provided to the historic Beale Street Baptist Church, thus saving it from foreclosure. The Solvent Savings Bank financing enabled Beale Street Baptist Church to retire their original loan, provided relief from old debtors and gave them more favorable terms in a new loan.
Photo courtesy of the Memphis and Shelby County Room, Memphis Public Library and Information Center.
hurch Park and Auditorium seated more than 2,000 people. The venue and park hosted leaders and speakers that ranged from Booker T. Washington to President Theodore Roosevelt to James Weldon Johnson to Bishop C H Mason, founder of the Church of God In Christ. As one of the most exquisite stops on what would come to be called the “Chittlin Circuit,” Church Park and Auditorium also was celebrated for its house orchestra, led by none other than W.C. Handy, father of the blues. Other legendary performers included Cab Calloway, Mahalia Jackson, Duke Ellington, and the Fisk Jubilee Singers.
Photo courtesy of the Memphis and Shelby County Room, Memphis Public Library and Information Center.
n the words of Memphis Historian Ronald A. Walter, “Much of Memphis’ early black history took place on Beale Street in Church’s Park and Auditorium. During the 1940s, a hostile City of Memphis administration changed the name of the park and auditorium to “Beale Avenue Auditorium.” Some years later, structures on the site were demolished under the government’s urban renewal program. The site was empty and barren until 1987, when the park was refurbished and landscaped into a tree-shaded grassy area.
n 1993, the park was listed in the National Register of Historic Places and was made a part of the Beale Street Historic District. In 1994, Roberta Church, the granddaughter of the founder, gave the park and city a large 22,000-pound white granite and bronze memorial monument, erected in memory of and dedicated to her father, Robert Church, Jr. The monument features a bronze bust of Robert R. Church, Sr., and is inscribed with historical information.”
obert R Church Sr. was among the 1st African American millionaires in America, and possibly the first native born to achieve this amount of wealth. Ship Captain, entrepreneur, and California Pioneer William Leisdorff, St Croix native and naturalized U.S Citizen, left an estate in the San Francisco Bay area valued at over 1.4 million dollars upon his death in 1848.
he Society of Entrepreneurs is a Memphis, TN based organization that was founded in 1991 “to foster the development of the entrepreneurial spirit and to recognize the contribution of entrepreneurs to business and the community.” Their Hall of Honor recognizes Memphis and regional entrepreneurs whose innovations and legendary achievements have made an indelible mark on the history of Memphis, the region and America. Robert R. Church Sr. is one of eight historic figures elected to the Hall of Honor. More than a century following his achievements as founder of Church Park and Auditorium, then Solvent Savings Bank, he was elected to a select group that included the likes of Abe Plough, founder of Plough Inc. in 1906, now known as Scherring-Plough Corporation, Clarence Saunders, founder of the innovative “Piggly Wiggly” Grocery Store Chain in 1916, Kemmons Wilson, founder of Holiday Inn in 1935 and Frederick R. Smith, founder of FedEx Corporation in 1973.
obert R. Church Sr. also has been named one of the city’s pioneer businessmen by the Memphis Chamber of Commerce. Annual awards are given in his honor by the Mid-South Minority Business Council in the categories of Corporation of the Year, Advocate of the Year, Minority Business of the Year, and Model Diversity Corporation CEO of the Year.
he accomplishments of Robert R. Church Sr. as an entrepreneur were legendary. The achievements of his children were legendary as well; not as entrepreneurs, but as advocates in the areas of Women’s Suffrage, Civil Rights and political enfranchisement. To read more on the historic Church Family of Memphis, see American, Blues, Jazz and Soul Food, 2nd Edition now available in hardback, paperback and e-book on Authorhouse.com.
By Ron Rudison
Author, American Blues, Jazz & Soul Food
- Church Park (1899-)
- Encyclopedia of African American Business, Edited By Jessie Carney Smith; consultants Millicent Lownes Jackson, and Linda T. Wynn Greenwood Publishing Group, 2006
- Mary Church Terrell and the National Association of Colored Women, 1896 to 1901, Beverly W. Jones, The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 67, No. 1 (Spring, 1982),
- Portraits of African American life since 1865, Nina Mjagkij, Rowman & Littlefield, 2003
- Robert R Church Jr, Bio
- http://www.memphishistory.org/People/TheProfessionals/JosiahTSettle/tabid/118/Default.aspx (… article is from the Afro-American Encyclopedia, James T. Haley, 1895.)
- Robert R. Church Family Papers