The financier, widely considered an important personality in Durham in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, was born in Clinton on Sept. 7, 1859. Merrick’s origins has led one local man to pursue the possibility of having a monument dedicated to his honor.
“Mr. Merrick left from Clinton at a very young age, and many of his achievements happened outside of Clinton,” said Larry Sutton, a history teacher at Clinton High School for 34 years who is now retired. “You wouldn’t have many people in Clinton and Sampson County who had very much knowledge of him. His hometown should know him. It’s fitting to me that his hometown be more aware of who John Merrick was and what he accomplished.”
That is Sutton’s first goal, to get Merrick’s name out there, in hopes that many would come to know the man he said deserves to be memorialized locally.
“This might be a tool that can be used to motivate and inspire young people of all backgrounds,” he said.
While some people in Clinton and Sampson County might know John Merrick and his role as president and founder of the mutual life insurance company, many may not know he was born here. The name should not be completely unfamiliar, however, as a branch of the segregated library on McKoy Street once bore Merrick’s name.
Although a history buff, Sutton conceded that he was not familiar with Merrick until he stumbled across a book of North Carolina biographies. There was a short article on pioneers, and Merrick’s name was included among the state’s business contributors. Sutton was immediately fascinated.
“He was completely unknown to me, and I was impressed,” said Sutton. “I was totally impressed with John Merrick the man. He was considered to be a very prominent African-American whose story is very amazing for the period he lived in. It was almost unheard of to achieve what he did.”
Merrick was born into slavery, the son of a single mother. It was not long before he moved away from the area. At 12, Merrick was working at a brickyard in Chapel Hill. Around 18, he moved to Raleigh to become a brick mason, meanwhile learning the barber trade. In 1880, he arrived in Durham and, within two years, expanded his barber business into five shops — two catering to blacks, three catering to whites.
“He was a bridge in Durham,” said Sutton. “He did a lot to bring together whites and blacks.”
During his time as a barber, Merrick forged relationships and honed people skills that, coupled with his business sense, would help in building and promoting businesses — involving the community, throughout
He helped build and promote, or otherwise further, several enterprises, including the Royal Knights of King David, the Lincoln Hospital, the Mechanics and Farmers Bank, the Bull City Drug Company, The Merrick-Moore-Spaulding Real Estate Company, The Durham Textile Mill and The Colored Library, along with numerous other ventures in the Raleigh-Durham area.
However, it is the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company that will stand as his lasting legacy. Started by Merrick in 1898, it is the oldest and largest African-American life insurance company in the United States.
“That is his most eternal monument,” said Sutton.
Sutton said he is now seeking a smaller monument at the man’s birthplace.
“I didn’t know of anything here in Clinton, as such, that would be a tribute, and he was deserving of one,” said Sutton. “My research is purely a community effort on my part. This being a recently-named All America City, it would be nice for this to be a bridge and hopefully see something, even on a small scale, dedicated to his honor.”
Sutton has a portrait of Merrick that was crafted by Clinton High School art teacher Michael Ray for the Black Men’s Organization, a school club at CHS organized by Sutton to reach out to young black males. He said the portrait can be utilized in conjunction with a local memorial if and when it is realized. Sutton said he hopes it can be.
“The goal is to get folks involved with this and that potentially they would help with funds or donations to achieve this for Mr. John Merrick,” said Sutton. “He was just a very well-liked community man. Folks who knew him and were tied to him loved him because he was a humanitarian.”
James Buchanan Duke, the U.S. tobacco and electric power industrialist who established the Duke Endowment and lent his family name to the former Trinity College, was a pioneer and philanthropist in his own right. He also served as a friend and adviser to Merrick.
In “John Merrick: A Biographical Sketch,” the biography written by Robert McCants Andrews in 1920, just a year after Merrick’s death, he quoted Duke in praising Merrick.
“The name of Merrick deserves to live and be a constant call to others to seek success and to use success for the good of mankind,” Duke stated.
Researching Merrick for some time now, Sutton said he hopes to see community involvement in recognizing Merrick in a tangible way — that they might ultimately heed the same call.
“My eventual goal is to get a monument erected here,” said Sutton, “honoring his birthplace and what he did.”
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137, ext. 121, or by email at email@example.com.