On September 7, 1859 John H. Merrick was born a slave in Clinton and raised by a single mother. He received no formal schooling, but learned to read and write in a Reconstruction school. By hard work and simple faith, Merrick rose in the world to organize the largest insurance company owned an operated entirely by African-Americans. Perhaps his personality, which was his greatest asset, accounted for the success he attained in life. He seemed to possess a charm that easily won people over.
When Merrick was twelve, he and his family relocated to Chapel Hill where he got a job in a brickyard providing support for his family. At the age of eighteen, Merrick moved to Raleigh where he became a brick mason and worked on the construction of Shaw University.
While in Raleigh, he became a bootblack in a barbershop, and in this same shop he learned the barber’s trade. In 1880 his friend, John Wright, asked Merrick to join him in relocating to Durham to start a new barbershop business. After six months Merrick bought shares in the barbershop and it was renamed Wright and Merrick. In 1892 Wright sold his shares to Merrick making him sole proprietor. Eventually Merrick owned eight barbershops in Durham. Responding to the prevailing racial segregation patterns, Merrick owned shops that catered exclusively to black and white customers. As his business flourished, Merrick began to buy land and build rental houses.
It has been said that for John Merrick, his trade was all-important because of the things he learned and the friendships he formed behind the barber’s chair. His higher education was earned in his barbershop, largely by the method of questioning professors from nearby Trinity College (Duke University) who stopped by for their weekly haircuts.
John Merrick seemed to have a special knack for organizing and promoting business enterprises. He was successful in his own personal business ventures and became a leader in civic affairs within the African-American community. In doing so, he gained the confidence of both the white and colored peoples of Durham.
In those days life insurance was still a relatively new concept and often was either unavailable or unaffordable to Afro-Americans. In 1883 Merrick joined several other local businessmen to purchase the Royal Knights of King David, a fraternal lodge that provided inexpensive insurance policies to lodge members and promoted black self-reliance. Often this was the only insurance available to coloreds in the Durham area. Over the next twenty-five years, the lodge and its insurance business expanded across six southeastern states. By the time of his death in 1919, Merrick was the largest shareholder in the lodge’s insurance business.
Merrick is most remembered, however, as one of the founders of the North Carolina Mutual Insurance Company, which eventually became the largest black-owned insurance company in the United States. Realizing the limitations of lodge-sponsored insurance, Merrick joined with several others in 1898 to establish the company. Their mission was to “relieve distress amongst poverty-stricken segment of Durham’s Negro population.” Each founder initially contributed $50 to purchase shares and Merrick was selected as the first company president. By 1918, North Carolina Mutual had over $1 million in insurance in force and was at that point the largest black-owned insurance firm in the nation. At one time it was the largest and richest African-American company in the world.
Concerned with more than the economic vitality of Durham, Merrick also participated in efforts to improve the health of Durham’s black population. In 1901, he served as the first President of the Board of Trustees for the Lincoln Hospital, the first freestanding black hospital in Durham. Merrick was credited with obtaining the necessary funding from the wealthy Duke family to build the hospital. Merrick had built relationships with the Duke brothers who regularly patronized his barbershop. The hospital housed a nursing school that was critical in serving the black population during the Influenza epidemic in 1918. Even though over one hundred years have passed, Lincoln Hospital is still operational today.
In 1907, Merrick and others established the Mechanics and Farmers Bank, the first Afro-American bank in Durham and one of a few to be found in the state. Many white banks refused to loan money to blacks; therefore, a bank for blacks was essential for black business growth. During the early to mid-twentieth century, black banks existed in every Southern city with a successful middle-class black population. The founders and original customers of M&F Bank represented various trades, crafts and professions in which the African-American community had achieved success, hence the name “Mechanics”. “Farmers” denoted that the bank intended to serve all facets of the community. Merrick initially served as a vice-president of the bank and later became its president. (On March 30, 2012, the bank reported its annual earnings for 2011. The bank has been profitable, on an annual basis, ever since its first branch opened in 1908, an enviable streak by any comparison.)
In 1908, no drug stores were conveniently located near Durham’s African-American neighborhoods or businesses. To better meet the pharmaceutical needs of a growing black population, John Merrick and five others founded the Bull City Drug Company, which included two stores.
In addition to his duties at North Carolina Mutual Life, Merrick also helped solve numerous problems within the black community of Durham. As African Americans acquired property in Durham, many wanted to purchase property insurance, yet, insurance regulations prevented North Carolina Mutual Life from offering real estate insurance. Merrick persuaded his business partners, A.M. Moore and C.C. Spaulding, to join him in forming a company that offered such a product in Durham. On December 8, 1910, the Merrick-Moore-Spaulding Real Estate Company was incorporated. Together these three men participated in numerous local ventures, and were often referred to as “The Triangle” throughout the business community.
The education of black children and young adults was a priority for John Merrick. In addition to supporting rural schools and the College for Blacks in Durham (now known as North Carolina Central), Merrick’s philanthropy helped open a public library on Fayetteville Street intended to serve the needs of black children of the community.
Through the efforts of John Merrick and others, Durham eventually became the city with the greatest concentration of black-owned business firms in the United States.
Merrick died in August of 1919 at the age of sixty.
* From the Sampson County Heritage Book, 1984