Come early September each year, my thoughts turn to John Merrick who was born on Sept. 7, 1859, a few miles south of Clinton, in the Taylors Bridge community. Most likely, the folks who work at the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company in downtown Durham also paused on last Thursday to reflect on the legacy of John Merrick. You see, Merrick was born a slave here in Sampson County, on the eve of the Civil War, left the county, at the age of 12, along with his mother, and finally made his way to Durham where he rose to prominence as the founder and first president of the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company in 1898.
It was in Durham where John Merrick built his business empire which included several barbershops, a real estate firm, the Mutual Insurance Company, the first black-owned bank and two drug stores, all at a time when the South had the right to determine the black man’s place in society. Yes, the former Confederate States of America had lost the Civil War, and the slaves were set free. Unfortunately, the former Confederate States of America gained control of Reconstruction, and the Federal Government did not insist on the newly freed slaves’ “full and equal participation in American life.”
To be sure, the country did not take the right path in those first years after emancipation. And this had dire consequences for the entire nation for generations to come. Writing in 1970, historian Carl N. Degler admitted, “Having failed to meet the problem of the black man, white Americans have been compelled to grapple with it in each succeeding generation down to our own day.”
When the former Confederate States of America did finally determine the black man’s place in society, the solution to the race dilemma was segregation, the American Apartheid—especially in areas of social interactions between the races. Seeing a need to provide services to segregated neighborhoods and communities, John Merrick channeled his wealth back into his community to help provide services to blacks that improved their quality of life while offering new job opportunities as well. Merrick gave blacks an opportunity for employment, helping them earn a decent living. Additionally, his business successes and influence gave them a sense of hope.
Today, even though there is no legal basis for discrimination, the fight for the American dream of justice and equality for all must continue. We must insist that health care is a right and everyone has a right to affordable health care coverage. We must do more to remove the gaps in employment, providing equal opportunity for job-training. And we must find ways to reverse America’s addiction to mass incarceration by reforming our criminal justice system.
Let’s remember, “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” And today, we must dare to speak out and confront evil. If we do nothing, we are just as guilty.
Larry Sutton is a retired teacher from Clinton High School and a columnist with The Sampson Independent.