Life and legacy of John Henry Merrick, founder of NC Mutual and a leader of Black Wall Street
John Henry Merrick was working at W.G. Otey’s barbershop in the late 1800s, serving some of the most prominent men in Raleigh, North Carolina, when an undisclosed misunderstanding with Otey got him fired.
Otey was a prominent black entrepreneur whose barbershop was located inside what was then the finest hotel in Raleigh, The Yarborough.
Merrick was born into slavery, and worked his way up from brickyards to shining shoes to the barber business, and by the turn of the century, Merrick relocated to Hayti, the famed historic black community in Durham, North Carolina, and owned five barbershops, a haircare line called Merrick’s Dandruff Care, and several rental properties, sharing ownership with a few other black entrepreneurs.
Otey was left out of the gains.
Merrick is best known as one of the leading co-founders of North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company in Durham, the largest and one of the first black-owned insurance companies in the United States.
He died 100 years ago this year, on August 6, 1919.
The founding of NC Mutual in 1898 filled a huge gap. In the late 1800s, insurance was unattainable for most African Americans; nearly all insurance companies catered to whites. To the extent that such services existed, they were provided through black social clubs and fraternities, like the Royal Knights of King David, which pooled its members’ resources to cover expenses like burials.
In partnership with seven other co-founders, including Dr. Aaron McDuffie Moore and his nephew C.C. Spaulding (who eventually served as NC Mutual’s president), Merrick used NC Mutual to transform insurance opportunities for black people, and also offered policyholders a stake in the company.
“The success of this mutual enterprise was a tremendous source of pride for African-Americans in Durham and across the country in those early days of freedom,” the company notes on its website.
When NC Mutual was relocated to Parrish Street, it became a cornerstone of a group of black-owned businesses. Parrish Street was soon nicknamed “Black Wall Street,” one of several black business districts of its kind across the country.
NC Mutual rented other properties on Parrish to black-owned businesses, creating additional opportunities. Some of the businesses on Parrish included Mechanics & Farmers Bank, a furniture store, and a tailor’s shop.
NC Mutual had a tough beginning; it didn’t make a profit until its fourth year of operation. By 1920, a year after Merrick’s death, the company was worth nearly $2 million with around $30 million in assets.
While Merrick certainly had plenty of his own accomplishments, his business partnerships had the most lasting impacts for black Durham.
In addition to the shared success of NC Mutual, Merrick supported Moore’s founding of Lincoln Memorial Hospital, Durham’s first black hospital, which still exists as a medical clinic. He also supported the founding of Mechanics & Farmers Bank and The Bull City Drug Company, which had two branches. Moore and Spaulding, were also involved with the bank and drug store.
The three also founded the Merrick-Moore-Spaulding Real Estate Company, the Durham Textile Mill. When Moore founded The Colored Library, Merrick rented, then sold him the property, investing a quarter of the sale price back into the library.
Merrick thrived and helped others find success in a time of immense racial violence, segregation, and denial of opportunities. Aya Shabu, a Durham-based performer and local historian of Whistle Stop Tours, works to recall and honor this legacy. She uses performance art to help tell the story of Hayti in the first person.
Merrick and Moore are some of the “narrative heroes” of Black Wall Street, Shabu said.
Did they know then how much of a legacy they would leave?
“I think every generation has kind of like these exceptions,” Shabu said. “I think it’s more indicative of what we could achieve if we weren’t living in a white supremacist culture, so I don’t feel like it’s actually that unique. I think it’s unique in the circumstances… I feel like, like a lot of people who accomplish stuff, they’re in the work. I think they’d be humble about it. I think there would be a lot more they’d wanted to do, had they been able to longer and had more access to opportunity. And I think they would be proud of some of the legacy that remains, the fact that they haven’t been forgotten and are being written about. That’s huge. And I’m sure they’d be somewhat critical, hoping we’d be farther along in some respects.”
Merrick and Moore were joined by more than their business ventures. Moore had two daughters, Lyda and Mattie Louise. In 1916, Lyda married Merrick’s son, Ed, joining the two families.
Like her father and father-in-law, Lyda Moore Merrick, who died in 1987, committed her life’s work to serving Durham’s black community. In 1952, she founded The Negro Braille Magazine (later The Merrick/Washington Magazine for the Blind), the “only national publication dedicated to the needs of Black blind persons.”
“My father passed a torch to me which I have never let go out,” Moore Merrick said at age 92. “We are blessed to serve.”
The St. Joseph’s Historic Foundation and Hayti Heritage Center, located in the historic St. Joseph’s AME Church building, have a gallery named after her — the Lyda Moore Merrick Gallery. The foundation preserves the history of the church and of Hayti, the predominantly African-American community that thrived in Durham until North Carolina Highway 147 and ‘urban renewal’ changed the area.
Moore Merrick and Ed Merrick’s daughter, Lyda Constance Merrick Watts, served as a clerk for NC Mutual in the 1940s and helped to save the original St. Joseph’s AME Church (now Hayti Heritage Center) from demolition when the Hayti community was partially decimated by Hwy 147 in the 1970s.
NC Mutual’s Uncertain Future
Though its building still stands prominently in downtown Durham, NC Mutual may soon face liquidation due in part to mismanaged assets.
The company’s building was sold to developers in 2006, though NC Mutual remains a tenant. It also changed its name from North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Co. to NC Mutual in 2017 as part of a rebranding project designed to reach new customers and alert younger African-Americans to its history.
Losing the company would signal the fall of another major pillar of the historic Hayti community, and greater Durham. The company’s impacts, and those of its founders and associates, lasted for generations.
They met practical needs, providing insurance, commercial rental opportunities, and other services, as well as a sense of community and pride both to black residents of Durham and in other communities across the U.S. Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois, infamously at odds about the right path to black freedom, both visited Durham’s Black Wall Street and praised its accomplishments.
In his book, “Entrepreneurship and Self-Help among Black Americans: A Reconsideration of Race and Economics,” John Sibley Butler notes “the exceptional impact that Durham, as an example, was to have on the national development of Afro-American enterprise.”
He quotes a passage from a 1928 issue of the St. Luke Herald (Richmond, Virginia): “Go to Durham… You need the inspiration. Go to Durham and see the industrious Negro at his best. Go to Durham and see the cooperative spirit among Negroes at its best. Go to Durham and see Negro business with an aggregate capital of millions. Go to Durham and see 22 Negro men whose honesty and business sagacity are making modern history. Among your New Year’s resolves, resolve to go to Durham!”
Imari Scarbrough is a freelance journalist in North Carolina. She covers a variety of topics, researching historical events, writing public service and investigative journalism, and more. Her work has appeared in Carolina Public Press, The Anson Record, The Robesonian, The Stanly News and Press, The Black Mountain News and others. You can follow her on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook @ImariScarbrough or visit her website at imarijournal.com.
This article originally appeared on ScalawagMagazine.org on July 22, 2019.