A real-life Lucious Lyon: The former slave who built a Beale Street “Empire” and transformed MemphisPosted in Articles, Biography, History, Media Archive, United States on 2015-04-09 01:27Z by Steven
Bob Church (Credit: University of Memphis Special Collections)
Memphis — and music as we know it — wouldn’t be the same without Robert Church’s legacy of vice, virtue and power
Depending on which critic or fan you ask, Fox TV’s “Empire” is somewhere between Shakespeare’s drama “King Lear” and Norman Lear’s campy “Good Times.” Less apparent to the show’s legions of viewers is how the story of Lucious Lyon and Empire Entertainment echoes the original black empire, a real-life dynasty of vice, virtue, and power, built in the heart of the old Confederacy just after the Civil War by a former slave who became monarch, Robert Church.
Like Lucious Lyon, who must plan for the future of his empire after being diagnosed with a crippling, often fatal, ailment, Bob Church had plenty of reasons to consider his legacy. It wasn’t so much that a specific death sentence loomed over Church—he just happened to find himself in life threatening situations, often. By his early 30s, Church had survived two gunshot wounds to his head, a steamboat disaster, a Civil War naval battle that he escaped by swimming the Mississippi River and an assassination attempt that backfired when a shotgun aimed at him exploded toward the shooter. Had Bob Church not been the combination of tough and lucky that saved him in these fateful scrapes, legendary Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee, might be just another strip of concrete. Instead, it gained such an extraordinary reputation that Memphis entertainer Rufus Thomas would crack, “If you could be black on Beale Street one Saturday night, you’d never want to be white no more.”
Beale Street’s birth as an alternate universe for black America, a center of political clout and cultural fertility that changed America, all began with Church…
…Understanding the uncertainty of the vice-lord life in a hell-roaring river town, Church knew he must cultivate an heir. His eldest son Thomas lived in New York, passing for white, some have said. Thomas wouldn’t do. Eldest daughter Mary had become a steadfast leader in her own right, the first black woman on Washington, D.C.’s board of education and a founder of the NAACP. She could not be compromised. As with Lucious Lyon’s three sons, there was some competition among the Church children—they all would have liked to keep his money—but unlike “Empire’s” twisted succession plot, old man Church had no doubt who to choose: his youngest son, Robert Jr…
Read the entire article here.