For over a century, a landmark business established by a former Sampson County slave, John Merrick, has been a centerpiece of downtown Durham, since opening in 1898.
After moving to Durham in 1880, John Merrick started out as an enterprising barber, realtor and contractor. As he became more successful in his own personal business ventures, he became a leader in civic affairs within the black community in Durham, remaining in the midst of the growing development of black business ownership, leading to the rise of a black middle class in the city.
Merrick’s achievements in the field of business were all the more impressive because they were accomplished despite the handicap of segregation, sanctioned by the U.S. Supreme Court in Plessy vs. Ferguson in 1896. By hard work, Merrick, along with Dr. Aaron Moore and Charles Spaulding, founded in Durham in 1898, the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company, the largest black-owned business in America at that time.
Merrick and his associates were leaders in the creation of black enterprises for the segregated residential areas in Durham, “where Negro enterprise flourished with unparalleled vigor.” This led to what was uniquely dubbed “Black Wall Street” in the city of Durham. And by the 1920s, Durham was being referred to as the “capital of the Black Middle Class.” From the perception of Booker T. Washington, the leading black spokesman in America during this time, this reality had been achieved by the “co-operation between the best classes of both races.”
Now, this all started on a plantation, south of Clinton on Sept. 7, 1859. The birth of John Merrick was destined to have a profound impact on North Carolina business as Merrick, himself, became an inspiration to his race.
Four years ago on Sept. 7, 2011, on the 152nd anniversary of Merrick’s birth, the Sampson County community was officially introduced to the man and his achievements during the inaugural John Merrick Memorial Tribute, hosted at First Baptist Church, 900 College Street. A major highlight of that 2011 memorial tribute was the presentation of proclamations honoring Merrick from both the city and county representatives.
In conjunction with Merrick’s 153rd birthday anniversary, the Sampson County History Museum unveiled an exhibit dedicated to his life and legacy, on Sept. 7, 2012. And to commemorate his 154th and 155th birthday anniversaries in 2013 and 2014, The Sampson Independent ran editorials titled “Remembering Merrick’s legacy” and “Merrick’s amazing success story,” respectively.
Now, on Merrick’s 156th birthday anniversary, the supporters of the efforts to honor the Clinton native are planning future activities and events to teach the community more about his life and legacy, and their ultimate goal remains to have a memorial placed on or near the courthouse grounds, honoring Merrick’s birthplace of Clinton.
As the most prominent figure in Durham’s economic development, Merrick was a man on a mission, seeking to instill in blacks the importance of self-help. In reference to honoring John Merrick, his close friend and adviser James B. Duke remarked, “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.”
Larry Sutton is a former teacher at Clinton High School.