This is a re-post documenting my first African American Month Education Individual: Robert R. Church. R. Church became a successful banker, owning an African American bank in Memphis, TN. His passion, was for the future of African American children, and their ability to have developmental access to parks where by they could grow and learn in a non hostile free environment. The ownership and construction, which was followed by injustice “JIM CROW” laws made R. Church’s ambitions a life long fight–which he eventually won. Here’s to Robert R. Church for seeing a need to obtain parks and recreaction for African American children!
Robert Reed Church, Sr., was a millionaire business leader and philanthropist in Memphis, Tennesses. Born in Holly Springs, Mississippi, on June 18, 1839, he was the product of an interracial union. His father was a steamboat captain, Charles B. Church, and his mother, Emmeline, was an enslaved seamstress who died when Robert was twelve years old. His father employed Robert as a cabin boy and a steward. Surviving a near fatal steamboat sinking in 1855, Robert in 1862 was forced to be a cabin steward on a Union steamer during the Civil War. Church married Louisa Ayres, also a former slave, in 1862. The couple had one child, Mary Eliza, who became a prominent civil rights and women’s rights advocate. After his marriage to Louisa ended in divorce, Church married Anna Wright in 1885 and they had Robert, Jr. who eventually followed his father into business and politics.
In 1865 Robert and Louisa Church settled in Memphis where the both became entrepreneurs. Luisa opened a string of beauty parlors while Robert acquired a saloon and added to his holdings over the years, eventually owning a restaurant and a downtown hotel. During the Memphis Race Riot of 1866, a white mob attacked Church’s saloon, shot him and left him for dead. Church recovered and vowed to remain in Memphis despite the anti-black violence. He stayed during the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1878 and afterwards bought considerable real estates when property values were depressed.
In 1882, Robert Church entered politics. He ran for office for the only time in his career when he campaigned unsuccessfully for a position on the Memphis Board of Public Works to press for more recreational facilites for local blacks. Despite his failure, Church never gave up that effort and in 1899 used his own money to purchase a tract of land on Beale Street where he built an auditorium, landscaped the surrounding grounds, and called the venture Church’s Park and Auditorium, the first major urban recreational center in the nation owned by an African American. Valued at $100,000 when built, Church’s auditorium seated more than 2,000 people and became a renowned cultural, recreational, and civic center for black Memphians.
In 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt spoke to 10,000 people gathered at the auditorium and on the surrounding grounds. The President’s presence and speech acknowledged Church’s political prominence in Republican Party circles. Two years earlier, in 1900, Church had been a Memphis delegate to the Republican National Convention which had nominated William McKinley for president and Roosevelt for vice-president. Even with his success in business and politics. Church found his greatest joy in negotiating contracts, funding and political support for the development of new African American parks, throughout Tennessee and the nation.
Church ran into difficult, trying to get a public census on the need for African American parks. Indeed, African American recreation was controlled and limited because white officials influenced where private parks were located and which activities were allowed. Nevertheless, as alternative spaces private parks provided a place of refuge from Jim Crow: a place for recreation,socializing, identity formation, community building, and even demands for equality.
Dixie Park, a small space bounded in the Mid-City neighborhood of New Orleans, celebrate it’s opening in July 1904 with a picnic hosted by the McDonough Pleasure Club; The Times Picayune noted: “dancing and refreshments were the order of the day and all had a jolly good time.” Indeed, within weeks of the opening, nearby residents were petitioning the mayor and the city council to close the park down.
White residents who lived near the park, including “prominent citizens” like City Councilman R.J.Goebel, complained to the city of an “unbearable nuisance”, explained The Times Picayune. The “nuisance” was the use of the park by African Americans. The unnamed white residents “protested agains the the granting of any more permits for colored people’s picnics…The negros give all day and all night picnics and their conduct is anything but orderly.” This conduct included “disgraceful language” and noise so loud that the “white people living two or three squares miles away are unable to get a wink of sleep.” (“A New Picnic Park”, Times Picayune (New Orleans, LA) July 18, 1904)
Events such as these did not discourage Mr. Church with his pursuit to ensure that parks were accessible for African Americans through the Tennessee and the nation. The importance of Church’s can be understood in the general notion of what parks and recreations bring to a society. Recreation represents the activity/service realm of play and leisure. The latter are foundations of human growth and development that span both the life cycle and the psycho-social value system of society.
Through participation in group games and sports, children establish social relationships and are able to learn social norms, rules, expectations as well as how to get along well with others. It is through these experiences that the child develops a sense of limits, fair play, self-control, honesty, creativity, and the ability to assert one’s self appropriately within one’s environment. The need for structured recreation in the home and within a community framework is integral to the process of child development. Moral development, personality formation and social orientation are all affected by structured recreation. Although many educators and social scientists have acknowledged the importance of structured recreation in child development, little support has been given to those who currently have no access to facilities, programs, services and trained personnel. As a direct result, preparation of the child (physically, emotionally, cognitively and socially) for adult and community life has become discouragingly dysfunctional.(Colston,1955)
Today this is very much recognized, as parks and recreations have 3 primary social importance. Parks and recreation have three values that make them essential services to communities:
1.Economic value- Improve tax base in communities and increase property value.
2.Health and Environmental benefits- Provide facilities for work out and exercise.
3.Social importance- Reflects the quality of life in a community. Providing access for all social groups to assemble.
Colston, Ladd. Urband Recreations Study Presents Significant Findings on African-American Consumers. Illinois Periodicals. Northern Illinois University Libraries. 1955
Elwood, Watson. Robert Reed Church. East Tennessee University. BlackPast. V3.0.2007
McQueeney, G. Kevin. Playing With Jim Crow: African American Private Parks in Early Twentieth Century New Orleans. University of New Orleans. Spring 2015
National Recreations and Park Association. Why Parks and Recreation are Essential Public Service.2010