John Merrick (insurance)
John Merrick (1859–1919) was an African-American entrepreneur whose life represents a rags-to-riches story. Born into slavery in Clinton, North Carolina, Merrick relied on his social savvy, entrepreneurial spirit, and inner drive to achieve great personal wealth by founding various companies in the Raleigh, North Carolina and Durham, North Carolina areas, most notably the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company. Portions of his wealth were channeled back into the black community through philanthropy. John Merrick was a great man- his business acumen and social consciousness made him one of the most influential members of the African-American community in his lifetime.
The southern United States was blanketed in tumult in the years following the Civil War best known as the Reconstruction era. The late 1800s were dominated by southern states rebuilding themselves after being decimated in the war. Racial tensions were boiling over between newly freed slaves and southern whites that adamantly disagreed with their emancipation. Although African American slaves had indeed been emancipated, their lives as free men and women did not significantly improve. Freed blacks were automatically placed at the bottom of the social hierarchy and were denied virtually all rights that were afforded to whites. John Merrick, a freed slave-turned-businessman, grew up against this backdrop of upheaval. Despite the racial barriers that prevented many blacks of his time from achieving success, Merrick was able to achieve wealth and prominence in his community. However, Merrick did not bask in his own personal wealth; he channeled his success back into the black community of Durham through philanthropy and job opportunities in order to plant the seed for a flourishing black society.
Merrick was born into slavery in Clinton, North Carolina on September 7, 1859. Following his emancipation, Merrick learned to read and write at a Reconstructionist school. Most newly freed blacks at this time were merely trying to survive, as they lacked many of the rights that their white counterparts possessed. Blacks also faced blunt discrimination and a lack of economic opportunities from biased whites that were opposed to their emancipation. Growing up in this environment, Merrick was forced to begin work at a young age in order to support his parents and siblings. Merrick became a brick mason while simultaneously learning the barber trade “during a lull in construction” in order to make ends meet. In the brickyards, Merrick had a first-hand look at Durham’s impoverished black population, “whose improvidence impressed upon his mind the thought of doing something for their protection”. His early jobs paved the way for Merrick’s future success as a barbershop entrepreneur and later as a business mogul and philanthropist.
His first financially successful business venture was his ownership of barbershops in the Durham area. His eventual financial achievements in the barbershop business gave him the necessary experience and resources to kick start his later business endeavors. Merrick joined John Wright, “a fellow barber,” who decided to “establish a [barbershop] business” in Durham and “offered [Merrick] employment in the new shop”. Eventually, Merrick became a partner in the barbershop, and ultimately became the sole owner of the business when Wright retired. Owning the Durham barbershop brought Merrick immense personal success. He rose from an “un-schooled, self-trained boy to a successful businessman and substantial citizen”. John N. Ingham notes that few blacks in the late 1800s demonstrated such adroitness for business success. Merrick later expanded the barbershop business by opening many more branches and became extremely successful. Through his entrepreneurial experiences in the barbershop business, Merrick accumulated wealth and was able to build relationships with many prominent white families of the time. His financial success allowed him to live somewhat extravagantly, purchasing a lavish “six-room cottage” for his family. Merrick’s barbershops “catered to wealthy white men”, and Merrick’s endearing and industrious attitude—he was noted to be unselfish and altruistic—allowed for his powerful white clients to become his friends. Many older members of Durham’s African American community told stories of the fabulous gifts that Merrick received from his white confidantes. The networking and relationships that his barbershop business allowed for would serve Merrick well in his future business undertakings and enable him to develop the necessary social skills to thrive in a white-dominated society. The success that the barbershop brought John Merrick was uncommon for a black man. Reconstruction had only just concluded, yet Merrick was already beginning to transcend financial racial barriers. His wealth and influence among numerous prominent white families of the time was extremely rare for someone of his race during this time period, and these resources paved the way for even more individual success.
Merrick’s success did not stop there—his newly gained experience from his barbershop ventures propelled him further into the business world by laying the groundwork for the creation of many other prosperous companies. These successive business undertakings brought Merrick immense wealth and financial security. His journey into the world of entrepreneurship was uncharacteristic of and therefore extraordinary for a black man of his time, yet the city of Durham did not possess the “white aristocracy” that could be found in “older cities like New Orleans”. John Merrick’s various business endeavors all flourished during his adulthood; these included his participation in the creation of the well-known North Carolina Mutual Company, the Merrick-Moore-Spaulding Real Estate Company, the Mechanics and Farmers Bank, and the Bull City Drug Company. R. Andrew McCants commented that “it is only natural that a man who has been personally very successful in the conduct of his own business,” which in Merrick’s case was his barbershops, “become a leader in community enterprises,” a feat he achieved with the establishment of his various companies. Merrick’s most profitable and noteworthy undertaking was the creation of the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company. He cultivated his relationships with Durham’s influential white families that had developed from his selfless personality and reliable business practices here, as he accepted loans from Washington Duke, his willing friend and customer, in order to start the business. Being Duke’s personal barber, the two became such close companions that Duke was more than willing to loan Merrick the money to cover the start up costs of his new company. Together with Dr. Aaron Moore and Charles C. Spaulding, Merrick helped increase the wealth of the “oldest and largest African American life insurance company in the United States”. North Carolina Mutual was hugely successful—the company sold $4,986,344.40 of insurance and conducted business in many southern states across America. The enterprise grew into the “world’s largest Negro business” of the time, making Merrick one of the most successful black men of the time.
Additional Business Ventures
Merrick’s other business ventures brought him affluence, power, and prominence as well. He was “influential” in the establishment and success of the Mechanics and Farmers Bank, the first bank in Durham owned and controlled by African Americans,” which grew “rapidly” and was “well supported” by black citizens at the time. Additionally, Merrick was instrumental in the formation of a much-needed African American drug store in Durham, namely the Bull City Drug Company. According to R. Andrews McCants, the Bull City Drug Company was “very successful” and was “still flourishing” by 1920 when McCants wrote his biography on Merrick. Merrick’s plethora of triumphant business undertakings brought him wealth, power, and influence that not many other African Americans of the time could lay claim to. Unlike most other blacks during the post-Reconstruction era who were constantly degraded and thought of as the “inferior race,” Merrick was looked up to in his community and became a well-known figure of power amongst Durham’s citizens. Durham’s black community considered Merrick a “sort of wizard” because of his impressive relationships with the “big whites” of Durham and his ability to “be a friend” to his townspeople. He was uniquely successful not only in his financial achievements but in that his persona, wit, and success earned him reverence from blacks and whites alike, as can be seen by his friendships with Durham’s citizens, raging from the poorest black farmers to the most prominent white families of the time.
Contributions to Black Durham
His did not stop at his own personal financial success; he channeled this success back into the community to provide philanthropy for African Americans whose rights were denied and whose needs were ignored. Most of the influential and powerful American citizens at the time were white and did not care enough to help address the issues of African American poverty, lack of necessary services, and lack of education. In fact, whites went out of their way to degrade blacks by keeping them ignorant and denying them services that we consider second nature today. This is where Merrick stepped in—every company he helped establish provided a necessary service to the African Americans of Durham that they otherwise, in all likelihood, would not have had access to. There is a sense of security that results from knowing one’s family will be taken care of financially if one were to meet a tragic fate, and Merrick provided Durham’s blacks with this security when he started the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company. He was “concerned with providing insurance protection for his race” and used his initial success in the barbershop business to launch a new company that would ease this concern and aid his people. The formation of Merrick’s first company served as a transition into other ways that Merrick could help his African American community: he started the Merrick-Moore-Spaulding Real Estate Company in order to provide blacks in Durham with real estate insurance, because “regulations prevented North Carolina Mutual Life from offering” this service to customers. Merrick’s formation of the black Mechanics and Farmer’s Bank also provided necessary banking services to black citizens in order to stimulate personal and business spending, for in the era following the emancipation of slaves, most white banks in the south refused to loan money to blacks. Additionally, John Merrick’s creation of a colored drug store provided Durham’s African American population with necessary medicines and remedies that they otherwise would not have access to, for at the time of the store’s opening, there was only one African American drug store in Durham, which was “not centrally located for the population”. Finally, Merrick helped “provide a home” for a public library for Durham’s African American children and donated $1,000 towards the library’s maintenance. Through his philanthropic business ventures and charitable use of his accumulated wealth, Merrick provided the blacks of Durham with many necessary services that they would otherwise be ignorant of and lack access to. Not only did Merrick recirculate his wealth back into the Durham community to increase the quality of life of Durham’s black citizens; he also provided them with job opportunities that would not be known by or available to them otherwise. During the Post-Reconstruction era, it was unlikely to see an African American businessman. Although it had been a few decades since black slaves had been freed, they remained at the bottom of the United State’s social hierarchy. Racial norms dictated that they were to follow in their relatives’ footsteps—to do the same work that their parents and grandparents had done. This “work” consisted mainly of farming, as most freed slaves became sharecroppers after their emancipation, for farming was all they knew. However, Merrick’s many businesses created novel and different job opportunities for blacks that they would not have had access to otherwise.
Merrick’s Lasting Impact
A new black middle class emerged in Durham. The city’s black elite had the chance to explore the real estate, insurance, banking, and pharmaceutical industries instead of accepting the strenuous, run-of-the-mill jobs that whites did not want. It is noted in Merrick’s biography that “young pharmacists” in the black community who did not have an opportunity to practice their trade were finally able to have access to the job that they truly desired with the development of the Bull City Drug Company. Durham’s blacks finally had opportunities to explore employment options that would not have been available to them had Merrick not started his many businesses. Merrick’s powerful status also served as an example to Durham’s black community that they could rise to prominence and achieve entrepreneurial success no matter their skin tone. His financial success and rising influence gave them hope—if John Merrick, a black once bound to slavery, could start his own business and ultimately build an empire, why couldn’t they? The Journal of Negro History notes that, because blacks now had opportunities to be employed by new businesses or to create their own businesses, they “emerged into a new social, economic, and intellectual order”. For example, following the successes of Merrick’s various companies, some of Durham’s other black citizens started a hosiery mill, the success of which was so large that “it soon had a chain of fourteen mills”. John Merrick’s example got the ball rolling in black business, creating a unique “black Wall Street” in Durham. Merrick helped create economic prosperity among the blacks of Durham, which laid the foundation for the establishment of a future self-sustaining community of independent, educated, and experienced black businessmen, which served as another small step in the fight for racial equality. John Merrick was an exceptional figure in North Carolina’s history. Not only did he defy supposed set-in-stone racial roles in order to achieve affluence that was customarily uncommon for blacks at the time, but he also rose to greatness with support from whites themselves. Merrick then directed his wealth back into his community, and by doing so, provided services to blacks that improved their quality of life and presented them with new and diverse job opportunities. His achievements served as an example that opened the door for a black business class to emerge in Durham.
Merrick also had a successful family life. In 1880, he lived with his wife Martha Hunter Merrick in Raleigh, North Carolina where he attended barbering school. By 1900, the Merrick family included five children—three daughters (Geneva, Mabel and Martha) and two sons (Edward and John). The household also included other extended family members.
- R. McCants Andrews, John Merrick: A Biographical Sketch (Durham: Press of the Seeman Printery, 1920)
- Dreck Spurlock Wilson, African- American Architects: A Biological Dictionary, 1865-1945 (London: Taylor & Francis Books, Inc., 2004), 398.
- “About Us,” Last modified 2010. [permanent dead link]
- C.G. Woodson, Insurance Business Among Negroes (Washington, D.C.: Association for the Study of African American Life and History, Inc., 1937), 202-226.
- Walter B. Weare, Black Business in the New South (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1973)
- John N. Ingham and Lynne B. Feldman, African-American Business Leaders: A Biological Dictionary (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1994), 450-451
- http://mangowebdesign.com, Website design and web development by Mango Web Design. "John Merrick (1859-1919) - North Carolina History Project".
- Durham: A Self- Portrait, produced by Dr. Steven Channing (2009, Durham: North Carolina, The Southern Documentary Fund)
- “About Us,” Last modified 2010. [permanent dead link]
- James A. Padgett, From Slavery to Prominence in North Carolina: Preparation (Washington D.C., Association for the Study of African American Life and History, Inc., 1937), 433-487
- "Founder of N.C. Mutual To Be Honored Sunday With Naming Of Ship". The Carolina Times. July 10, 1943. Retrieved October 30, 2013.[permanent dead link]
- “Local Race Bank Has Served City Over 30 Years,” The Carolina Times, November 20, 1937, accessed October 29, 2013 [permanent dead link]
- James A. Padgett, From Slavery to Prominence in North Carolina: Preparation (Washington D.C., Association for the Study of African American Life and History, Inc., 1937), 433-487.
- United States Census 1900
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