I’ve said that Memphis has extraordinary people, and I think it’s accurate to say that their generosity has made Memphis extraordinary in turn. The roles—heck, just the roll call—of those who have given of themselves to shape our city would fill more pages than this book allows. In summary, it’s a combination of private citizens, political will and leaders of our spiritual, nonprofit and business spheres. Though they represent different ethnicities, faiths, political persuasions and more, they have two traits in common: a philanthropic spirit and a commitment to our city.
In fact, these traits helped to save Memphis. A half-century after Andrew Jackson, John Overton and James Winchester dreamed up our city on the bluff, flooding, mosquitoes and unsanitary conditions conspired to turn it into a nightmare. During the yellow fever epidemics of the 1870s, Memphis’ population—40,000 citizens at its height—was nearly wiped out. Thousands died; thousands more fled. By 1879, Memphis was an economic void: bankrupt, without a charter, amounting to nothing more than a taxing district for the state of Tennessee. At times like these, did our founding fathers wonder if their dream would last even 100 years? Yet someone stepped in to make an investment in Memphis: Robert R. Church Sr., a former slave-turned-businessman. He was the first citizen to secure a $1,000 bond to recover our city’s charter. He bought land locally, concentrating on Beale Street, which he helped transform into a hub for African-American life in the city. One product of that transformation, Church Park, is an amenity that our entire community still enjoys today—especially during the annual Africa in April festival, a 30-plus-year tradition.
Church’s generosity ran deeper than big-dollar deals and developments. He donated Thanksgiving meals to African-American families in need, proving that in Memphis, philanthropy is more than writing a check: it’s checking on the welfare of your community, one person at a time. It reminds me of the way that, today, Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association (MIFA) feeds senior Memphians through its Meals on Wheels program. Of the way that Church Health provides medical care for uninsured members of our community. Of the way that Memphis Union Mission shelters and comforts folks in need. These are just a few examples of Memphis’ generosity in action.
The Faith Factor
It’s been said that Memphis is home to more churches than gas stations. I’m not sure if that’s true, but I know that Memphis has a deep tradition of faith: faith in our city, for one, as well as a diverse faith-based community that uplifts our people in so many ways. Consider the examples I just mentioned. MIFA was founded in 1968, when local churches and community leaders joined together to heal the city in the aftermath of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. Church Health launched in 1987 under the leadership of Dr. Scott Morris, a physician and associate pastor at St. John’s United Methodist Church. Memphis Union Mission came about in 1945, when a Memphis businessman partnered with a young evangelist to provide “soup, soap and salvation” to homeless men. Their first shelter was a former saloon and gambling hall on Poplar Avenue.
Of course, you can’t talk about faith in Memphis without mentioning the deal Danny Thomas struck with the patron saint of lost causes. “Show me my way in life and I will build you a shrine,”
Thomas prayed to St. Jude Thaddeus. Thomas’ leap of faith was powered by vision—a vision of a hospital that would treat children with catastrophic diseases regardless of race, religion or their family’s ability to pay. When St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital opened on February 4, 1962, the survival rate for the most common form of childhood cancer, acute lymphoblastic leukemia, was 4 percent. At last check, St. Jude reported a survival rate higher than 94 percent.
We’re In This Together
Like Robert R. Church Sr. in Memphis’ first hundred years, philanthropy “superstars” have demonstrated their commitment to Memphis in our most recent century. Pharmaceutical pioneer Abe Plough set a shining example. As his obituary noted, “Although Plough parlayed a $125 investment into a multi-million-dollar empire, he was best known for his generosity to Memphis and its citizens.” Indeed, the challenge grants and other funds donated by his Plough Foundation have impacted, and continue to impact, countless local programs, from the South Memphis Farmers Market to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Memphis citizens, corporations and philanthropies have contributed to faith-based organizations as well, MIFA and Church Health among them.
This says to me that our greatest successes come when we work together.
Chances are, you know of several other individuals and organizations working together to make Memphis a better place. But for every philanthropy or donor name you know, there are many you don’t. Even Abe Plough was known as “Mr. Anonymous” throughout his years of giving! He isn’t the only Memphis donor who has shied away from credit or praise. Out of respect for these individuals, I’ll leave you here, with a thanks to all of those who have given back and helped shape our city over the last 200 years. We wouldn’t be here without you.
A Healing Shrine
When it came time to build his shrine to St. Jude, Danny Thomas had several choices to make. What form would the shrine take? Where would it be erected? By chance, Thomas’ spiritual adviser, Samuel Cardinal Stritch, led his first parish in Memphis. Stritch suggested the city, and the idea of building something greater than a shrine, to Thomas. He connected Thomas with Memphis attorneys Ed Barry and John Ford Canale to further the conversation. Thomas began making personal donations and helping to solicit donations from others. In May 1955, he hosted his first fundraising event, a benefit concert featuring Dinah Shore at Crump Stadium. A steering committee was formed, including Barry, Canale and Fred P. Gattas. By this point, Thomas’ shrine was taking the shape of a children’s hospital that would give equal treatment to all of its patients for free. What a business plan! Already plotting a moonshot, the committee determined that the hospital would focus on treating and researching diseases that were, at the time, considered incurable. Fundraising efforts continued and in 1957, Thomas created the American Lebanese Syrian Associated Charities (ALSAC) to provide for the hospital’s regular operating expenses. Barry secured a 10-acre parcel of land for just over $200,000 and the hospital broke ground. As radical as the idea for the hospital was its success: after a decade of operation, St. Jude introduced the word cure into the conversation on childhood cancer.
Like Father, Like Son
In time, Robert R. Church Sr. passed the family business and his sense of civic duty to his son. Robert R. Church Jr. grew Solvent Savings Bank and Trust Company, strengthening the local economy while creating one of the largest African-American banks in the country. He also helped to establish the Memphis Branch of the NAACP in 1917.
Memphis’ knack for attracting and inspiring entrepreneurs isn’t limited to business. Bishop Charles Harrison Mason began organizing ministers to form the Church of God in Christ in 1897.
Today, the denomination claims millions of followers worldwide and its Mason Temple is recognized by the National Park Service as a historic place of the civil rights movement—this hub for 1950s and ’60s activism hosted the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his “Mountaintop” speech on the eve of King’s assassination in 1968.
A few years earlier, the Rev. Donald Edgar Mowery developed a pioneering youth training initiative, the Episcopal-based Youth Service in Memphis. Elvis Presley was a supporter. The Youth Service model caught on nationwide; here at home, it evolved into BRIDGES. Since 1996, BRIDGES has continued the work of “Father Don,” engaging Memphis youth in workshops on diversity, leadership, human relations and community impact.
At Temple Israel, Rabbi Micah Greenstein’s bold work to connect Memphians across backgrounds and beliefs has earned local and national acclaim. It’s easy to imagine that James A. Wax, who served Temple Israel as rabbi from 1954 to 1978, would be proud: Wax was among the interfaith, interethnic members of the Memphis clergy who issued “An Appeal to Conscience” during the sanitation workers strike of 1968. The public statement, the first of its kind in Memphis, encouraged brotherhood and is considered an early step toward the creation of MIFA.
Medicine Man to Mr. Anonymous
Abe Plough made his $125 investment when he was just 16 years old, borrowing the money from his father to develop and market a line of antiseptic oils. The year was 1908. By the time of his death in 1984, Plough’s enterprise was one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies, with St. Joseph Aspirin and Coppertone among its brands.