CHURCH PARK (1899-- )
In 1899, the city of Memphis did not provide recreational facilities
such as parks and playgrounds for its black citizens, nor were there any
suitable places where black theatrical troupes could perform. It was to
meet these needs that Robert R. Church bought a tract of land and built
on it an auditorium with funds he had accumulated since the Civil War.
The park was called "Church's Park and Auditorium" and was located
on a site of over six acres on Beale Street near Fourth and Turley. The
grounds were handsomely and generously landscaped, and the auditorium,
equipped with the best and most modern accommodations of the time, could
seat 2,200 people.
Church's Park and Auditorium was built by Church, owned by Church, and managed by Church. It was heralded as the only business venture of its kind in America and represented an unusual business feat for anyone at any time in history. An article in the September 15, 1906 Planter Journal noted that the auditorium cost $50,000 and that it was well equipped and had one of the largest stages in the South, completely furnished with all modern equipment, including a fire-proof curtain. The Planter's Journal also pointed out that the park and auditorium were without a doubt the most beautiful of its kind in the entire country.
Beneath the stage in the auditorium was a large banquet hall and bar, and a soda fountain was located near the entrance to provide refreshments for visitors. The fire-proof drop curtain on the stage of the auditorium was a copy of an oil painting of the burning steamer, Bulletin No. 2, which hung in the parlor of the Church residence. In addition to the auditorium, there was a large bandstand where evening band concerts were performed for the public during the summer months. Bands of fraternal organizations and other groups played for picnics and various events held in the park. Also contained in the park was a playground with recreational facilities, including slides and swings, for the entertainment and pleasure of children.
Among the popular theatrical troupes that toured the country prior to 1920 and performed at the Church Park Auditorium were the Black Patti Troubadours, with John Rucker (known as "The Alabama Blossom"), Madame Sissieretta Jones (the famous "Black Patti"), the Smart Set with S. H. Dudley (advertised as "The Greatest Colored Show On Earth"), and the Fisk Jubilee Singers.
President Theodore Roosevelt was a guest at a reception given by the black citizens of Memphis and addressed an estimated audience of over 10,000 citizens there on November 19, 1902. Booker T. Washington and party, who were touring Tennessee, also were guests there for breakfast in the banquet hall of the auditorium on November 24, 1909. James Shilliday, Herbert J. Seligmann, James Weldon Johnson, and Walter White, all officials of the national office of the NAACP, visited the location.
The Lincoln Republican League, founded and organized by Robert R. Church, Jr., held its meetings in the auditorium, as did the first Memphis Branch of the NAACP. The Church of God In Christ, founded by Bishop C. H. Mason, held its convocations in the Church Park Auditorium before Mason Temple was built. William C. Handy, the world famous "blues" composer and musician, was employed to play for dances in Church's Park and Auditorium. The Cotton Makers' Jubilee, the black arm of the spring Cotton Carnival festival, was held on the site. World-acclaimed musicians Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Cab Calloway all played jazz there. Numerous school activities, including LeMoyneOwen College athletic games, dances, and other events were held there.
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.
In 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.