John Merrick founded and served for twenty years as president of what became the nation’s largest black-owned business. Merrick, who never knew his father, and his mother, an ex-slave, moved from Sampson County to Chapel Hill after the Civil War. He became a bricklayer and moved to Raleigh where he worked on the Shaw University campus. In 1880 he moved to Durham, opening a barbershop. He counted among his customers some of Durham’s most prominent men, of both races, including Washington Duke. The tobacco magnate is said to have encouraged Merrick’s venture into the insurance business.
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On October 20, 1898, Merrick and six fellow investors met in the office of Dr. Aaron Moore to organize the North Carolina Mutual and Providence Association. Among the group were educators James E. Shepard and Edward A. Johnson. The company was incorporated in February 1899 and opened for business two months later. Merrick, who served as president, is generally acknowledged as the founder. Dr. Moore, who succeeded him as president in 1919, is called the co-founder but Moore acknowledged in 1920 that it was Merrick who took the initiative in the organization. Along with C. C. Spaulding, Moore’s cousin, they formed the “Triumvirate” which led North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company (the name was changed in 1919) for over fifty years. The company spawned allied businesses, among them Mechanics and Farmers Bank, a hosiery mill, real estate company, drugstore, and publications. The firm helped earn Durham its national reputation as “Black Wall Street” and the “Capital of the Black Middle Class.”
Merrick was buried in Violet Cemetery, which he established and named for his mother. After Beechwood Cemetery was opened in 1926, his remains were reinterred there. On July 11, 1943, the Liberty Ship John Merrick was launched by the North Carolina Shipbuilding Company in Wilmington. It was the only ship built in Wilmington named for a black North Carolinian. Ships constructed elsewhere were named for George Washington Carver, Frederick Douglass, and Booker T. Washington. Merrick was a close friend of Washington and his success has been described by historian Walter B. Weare as vindication of Washington’s self-help philosophy.
William J. Kennedy Jr., The North Carolina Mutual Story (1970)
R. McCants Andrews, John Merrick: A Biographical Sketch (1920)
Walter B. Weare, Black Business in the New South: Social History of the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company (1973)
William S. Powell, ed., Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, IV, 257-258—sketch by Walter B. Weare
Howard E. Covington Jr. and Marion A. Ellis, eds., The North Carolina Century: Tar
Heels Who Made a Difference, 1900-2000 (2002)
Jean Bradley Anderson, Durham County: A History of Durham County, North Carolina, (1990)