Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Preston Lauterbach on "the South's First Black Millionaire," Robert Church

Preston Lauterbach
W.W. Norton and Company, Inc.

Following the Civil War, Memphis emerged a center of black progress, optimism, and cultural ferment, after a period of turmoil. Preston Lauterbach joins host Jonathan Judaken for an in-depth discussion in advance of the launch of Lauterbach's latest book, Beale Street Dynasty: Sex, Song, and the Struggle for the Soul of Memphis.

Robert Church, Sr., who would become “the South’s first black millionaire,” was a slave owned by his white father. Having survived a deadly race riot in 1866, Church constructed an empire of vice in the booming river town of post-Civil War Memphis. He made a fortune with saloons, gambling, and—shockingly—white prostitution. But he also nurtured the militant journalism of Ida B. Wells and helped revolutionize American music through the work of composer W.C. Handy, the man called "the inventor of the blues.  "

In the face of Jim Crow, the Church fortune helped fashion the most powerful black political organization of the early twentieth century. Robert and his son, Robert, Jr., bought and sold property, founded a bank, and created a park and auditorium for their people finer than the places whites had forbidden them to attend.

However, the Church family operated through a tense arrangement with the Democrat machine run by the notorious E. H. “Boss” Crump, who stole elections and controlled city hall. The battle between this black dynasty and the white political machine would define the future of Memphis.

The book launch for Lauterbach’s Beale Street Dynasty: Sex, Song and the Struggle for the Soul of Memphis will take place at Rhodes College on March 19, 2015 at 6p.m. An opening reception at 5:30 will kick off the “Beale Street Symposium”: three days celebrating Beale.

For more information about the Symposium, you can visit the Rhodes College website.

For more information about Preston Lauterbach, or learn about his other books and interests, you can visit

For more information about the exhibit "Historic Black Memphians," you can visit the Pink Palace Museum website

My mother introduced me to WKNO-FM and public radio long before I can remember. I suppose the first thing I really recall about WKNO-FM is that every afternoon, when my mother picked me up from school, the radio was tuned-in to The World, then All Things Considered, probably beginning around age 8. The way these reporters and hosts took you from the comfort of your mom's van to wherever in the world they were reporting from absolutely fascinated me. From then on, I was officially hooked.
Related Content