Robert Reed Church, Jr. (1885-1952)

Robert Reed Church, Jr.
Courtesy Tennessee State University

Robert Reed Church, Jr. was born on October 26, 1885 in Memphis, Tennessee.  He was the youngest son of Robert Church Sr., a prominent African American businessman in the city and his second wife, Anna Wright Church. Like his father, he became an important businessman, political activist, and politician during the 1920s.

Robert Church, Jr. was educated at Morgan Park Military Academy in Illinois. After high school he earned a B.A. from Oberlin College in Ohio and an M.B.A. from the Packard School of Business in New York. He also spent two years working on Wall Street. When he returned to Memphis he managed one of the family businesses, Church Park and Auditorium on Beale Street. Afterwards, he became cashier of the Solvent Savings Bank and Trust Company, a bank founded by his father.  Church became its President upon his father’s death in 1912.  Church also presided over the family’s extensive real estate holdings in Memphis.  On July 26, 1911, Robert Church, Jr., married Sara P. Johnson of Washington, D. C. They had one child, Sara Roberta.

In 1916, Church founded and financed the Lincoln League in Memphis which was established to increase voter registration and participation among the city’s black residents.  He was convinced that the one of the most effective ways for African Americans to gain political, social, economic equality was through being active participants in the political process. The Lincoln League organized voter registration drives, voting schools, and paid poll taxes for voters. Within a short period of time, the League had registered more 10,000 voters. That same year, the organization ran candidates for public office including an African American candidate for Congress for the first time.  The candidates were unsuccessful but the effort created an organization that soon was recognized by Memphis political boss Edward M. Crump.  The League evenly expanded into a statewide organization.

In 1917, Church organized the Memphis Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the first branch in the state of Tennessee.  Two years later Church was elected to the national board of directors for the NAACP in recognition of his growing national influence.  In 1924 the newly formed Congressional Country Club of Washington, D.C. invited Church to become a member.  He refused because he was the only African American asked to join.  Church was active in other organizations including the Iroquois Club of Memphis and Omega Psi Phi Fraternity.

Robert Church, Jr. was a perennial delegate to several Republican National Conventions from 1912 to 1940. His Lincoln League provided the swing votes that propelled Republicans to victory in several Memphis and Shelby County.  National GOP Party officials acknowledged his leadership by consulting him on federal patronage in the region.

Aware of his political power through the Lincoln League, Republican presidents and other prominent party officials sought advice from Church about various political strategies. Church, however, refused to take appointment to office, the standard reward for such influence. In 1922, for example, he declined a presidential appointment by Warren G. Harding to be chairman of the U.S. Commission to Study American Relations with Haiti. In 1924, he rejected a similar offer from President Calvin Coolidge to become part of a commission to study U.S./Virgin Islands relations.

With the rise of the New Deal in the 1930s and the increasing defection of African Americans to the Democratic Party, Church’s political influence began to wane.  Not surprisingly, Boss Crump now cultivated Democratic leaders among Memphis African Americans   Church and Crump were neither friends but the Memphis political boss had earlier recognized Church’s political influence.  Now, the Crump machine challenged Church’s power directly.  In the early 1940s, the Crump Machine used its influence with the Roosevelt Administration to weaken Church.  When the Justice Department tried unsuccessfully to convict him of tax evasion, Church moved to Chicago.

At the invitation of his close friend, A Philip Randolph, President of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, Church accepted a position on the board of the National Council for a Permanent Fair Employment Practices Committee. In 1944, he was elected chairman of the Republican American Committee, some 200 black Republican leaders in more than 30 states who pressured Republican congressmen to vote in favor fair employment and other civil rights legislation.

Church visited his hometown in 1952, after attending the Republican State Convention in Nashville to campaign for General Dwight D. Eisenhower for President. While discussing politics with friends, 64 year-old Robert R. Church, Jr. died of a heart attack on April 17, 1952.