John Merrick, widely considered an important personality in Durham in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, was born in Clinton on Sept. 7, 1859. While Merrick left Clinton at an early age and went on to big things in Durham, the man’s origins led retired educator Larry Sutton to pursue the possibility of having a monument dedicated locally to his honor.
“His hometown should know him,” Sutton, a history teacher at Clinton High School for 34 years, told board members and those in the general public. “It’s fitting to me that his hometown be more aware of who John Merrick was and what he accomplished.”
Sutton has sang Merrick’s praises in recent months, speaking to the board of Merrick’s accomplishments and his wishes for a local monument to him during consecutive regular meetings in January, February and March.
A monument to Merrick might be a tool that can be used to motivate and inspire young people of all backgrounds, he said.
While acknowledging Merrick’s achievements, county manager Ed Causey said staff evaluated the request for a monument on courthouse grounds. He presented a “best practices” outline for commissioners in determining criteria for, and selection of, persons to be memorialized and in what way they should be.
“It’s not been the normal practice of the county commissioners to honor individuals (through monuments),” said Causey. “That’s not to take away from the accomplishments of Mr. Merrick, who was an honorable individual. We think there are avenues to honor him. We want to make sure that individuals get the recognition due to them.”
He said it has not been the common practice of the commissioners to memorialize a citizen by facility, monument or plaque. Notable exceptions include a gravestone marker for county namesake John Sampson, commissioned by the Sampson County Historical Society in 1982; Prestage Hall, named in consideration for the family’s $200,000 donation to the construction of the Agri-Exposition Center; and a legislatively-authorized contribution of $250 in 1909 to a war memorial on the courthouse grounds.
Causey said Sutton’s request for a monument or plaque to Merrick to be located on courthouse grounds was usually a distinction reserved for military and armed conflict memorials.
There are only six such memorials on the courthouse grounds. Three of them honor specific individuals (county seat namesake Richard Clinton, U.S. Vice President William Rufus DeVane King and Robert Fields, the first Sampson citizen to die in WWII). The other three are memorials honoring wars or armed conflicts.
Other individuals can be honored through resolutions adopted by local governments.
“This is indeed a very exceptional individual, and meritous of such a recognition,” Causey said.
A one-time brick mason and barber, Merrick used his people skills and business sense to further numerous enterprises, with the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company standing as his lasting legacy. Started by Merrick in 1898, it is the oldest and largest African-American life insurance company in the United States.
In the future, the board may wish to establish a committee to evaluate requests for monuments to be placed in public spaces, Causey noted. County staff also suggested honoring Merrick, and other noteworthy citizens, by way of an application to the Sampson County Hall of Fame, exhibits in the Sampson County History Museum or private placement of a marker. At any of those ceremonies, the county board’s resolution could be read.
Commissioner Albert Kirby said he believed the resolution adopted by the board was fitting.
“I think that’s sufficient,” he said. “I would concur with the county manager and I have a great deal of respect for Mr. Sutton, who taught me in history.”
Following Sutton’s request to the board, Kirby said he sought out information on Merrick himself. “This is a man who was born a slave and picked himself up by his bootstraps and accomplished great things in this state,” said Kirby.
“He is worthy of this honor,” added Commissioner John Blanton.
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137, ext. 121, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.